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Champions of play: Boston-area libraries get in the game

Posted by Timothy Loew  December 16, 2013 10:21 AM

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By Matt Akers

For some, the image of the public library is one of quiet spaces and dusty hardback books, but for a handful of Massachusetts librarians, the term evokes something quite different: The preservation of video games.

Four such librarians work within the Minuteman Library Network, a consortium of 43 public and college libraries in Metrowest. Their respective philosophies are unique, but they all agree that one of a library's most sacred tasks is to archive cultural artifacts and video games - just like books, music, and film - fit that bill.

On Being a Professional Video Game Collector

John Walsh is the Assistant Reference Supervisor at the Newton Free Library, a handsome, three-story brick building located in Newton. It's 'New England old,' founded around 1870, and it lends out nearly two million items per year – one of the highest circulation rates of any public library in the state. Video games are some of Newton's most popular items, but they haven't been on shelves for long.library1.jpg

Walsh, being a general lover of public libraries, was perusing a nearby favorite two years ago in Watertown, when he made a career-changing discovery: rows and rows of video games. "They have anime, manga, and video games next to each other. I want that [in my library]," Walsh remembered.

Upon returning to work, he approached his then-director about the possibility of lending out games as part of Newton's audio-visual collection.

"If you look at the baseline of libraries, it's books. At the same time, we have meeting space, we have computers, we have musical scores, we have Blu-rays, we have all these things are aren't books. So I [said], 'Let's get some video games.'"

Walsh's pitch was successful, and he was soon given funds to purchase a small number of games. He put them out on a shelf near the DVDs, like he'd seen in Watertown, and waited. Last year, during budget season, Walsh's bosses gave him positive news: The average video game was being borrowed 10 times more frequently than the average book.

Statistically speaking, these numbers are tricky. Newton houses exponentially more books than games, so per-item circulation doesn't necessarily equate to overall popularity. Nevertheless, it became clear to the Newton staff that video games, in their first year, were in high demand. Subsequently, Walsh's budget was given a substantial upgrade.

Today, Walsh maintains a collection of more than 400 video game titles, a number that is growing by the month. On my last visit, I saw copies of Red Dead Redemption, Halo 4, and Skyrim: Legendary Edition along with family-friendly games like Lego Marvel Super Heroes. Grand Theft Auto 5 sat on Newton's shelves six days after its release. Age restrictions are left to the parent's discretion, and library members can check out up to six games at a time, completely free of charge. All you need is a valid Massachusetts address and a library card.

For Walsh, there's more to offering games than mere entertainment. As a lifelong gamer, he understands well the level of talent, art, and emotion that goes into a powerful gaming experience. As he puts it, it's the feeling that, "I made their life a little better, and they don't even know who I am."library2.jpg

Building a Community around Games

Watertown Free Public Library – the very same one that inspired John Walsh two years ago – has been lending out video games for a decade. Carey Conkey-Finn, the Supervisor of Teen Services at Watertown, has been there for 24 years.

Like Walsh, she has immense respect for video game culture. Contrary to Walsh's general market approach, however, Conkey-Finn is on a specific mission to engage teens. Her chief goals are to create "raving fans" of the library and to provide tangible engagement for young people.

In Conkey-Finn's department, among books, magazines, and DVDs, she offers nearly 900 video games, along with Friday afternoon console sessions and the occasional tournament. Under Watertown policy, the library doesn't censor any materials for patrons, including M-rated titles. Teens with a library card can check out whatever they want, and the response has been outstandingly positive.

"By just hanging out with the library staff, [teens] become more civically-minded. They grow into adults and learn to enjoy library services. They may not become the best readers in the world, but that's OK. They eventually come to respect the institution and see it as a place to be," Conkey-Finn tells me.

She wants young people to feel welcome at the library, and games are an effective way to demonstrate that. And she should know. According to her, she was the first librarian in the Minuteman network to put video games on shelves ten years ago. Since then, some teens have gone from showing up just to check out items to planning events for the younger children. Rewards like that, she says, provide her with a deep sense of appreciation for her job.

Conkey-Finn hasn't mastered video game lending just yet, but she's well on her way. Right now she spends roughly 25% of her yearly budget on games, and her collection continues to expand via patron suggestions.

Her message to those on the fence about video games in libraries: "I respect what kids want, and this is what they want to keep. I think society should respect that."library3.jpg

The 21st Century Library

Moving southwest along the Minuteman network, we arrive in Dover. For a hidden town of only 6,000 residents, Dover's library is uncommonly advanced.

Dover Town Library Director, Cheryl Abdullah Abouelaziz, shows me the main floor, where numerous tablets have recently been mounted on waist-high stands. Downstairs, her staff has posted a visual map of the devices that they lend to members, like Kindles and iPads. Dover was a Library Journal finalist in 2012 for "Best Small Library in America", and Abdullah used the accompanying monetary gift to buy everyone on staff an iPod touch. There isn't a Dewey Decimal to be found.

For the outrageous price of $0, Minuteman card-holders can borrow PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360 consoles from the Dover Town Library. Half a dozen 3DS handhelds are available to check out as well. As far as Abdullah is concerned, there's no point in offering games if patrons don't have the means to play them. She also maintains a small game room, complete with an HD TV and seating area. All ages are welcome, and the Dover staff doesn't censor content based on ESRB rating.

Dover's outlook on games is merely one part of its holistic approach to technological trends. If public libraries hope to continue serving constituents through literacy and access, it's imperative that they learn to support digital literacy and access as well. "Lots of industries are still struggling to figure out where all of this technology fits in," Abdullah tells me. "Libraries are no different."

The Positive Impacts of Gaming

library4.jpgAimee Villet learned a thing or two working for Abdullah two years ago. Now she works in young adult services at Robbins Library in Arlington, and she's proud to have carried over some of Dover's video game services.

Villet is young enough to have had a WoW-playing mom growing up, but she's not much of a gamer herself. That being said, she knows enough about the medium to recognize it as constructive and potentially educational.

"A lot of what video games are is problem solving. You're helping your brain develop, even if you're not realizing it," she tells me.

Even off-screen, she says, video games can prove to be a powerful force for young people and adults alike.

"What happens with libraries is that you have children who [visit] all the time because their parents bring them in. Then, around middle school and high school, they have to go out of their way to come to the building. [After that,] you're lucky if anyone uses the library again before they have their own kids, because they just kind of forget the value of it."

In Villet's experiences, she's found that video games can help bridge that crucial gap. Why visit your local public library as a 23 year-old? Because you can borrow games for free. It's her belief that, when given free time, young people will generally pick the least productive option. Even though many video game borrowers won't ever branch out to other materials, being in close proximity to books and library programming can make them more likely to engage with learning. That goes for adults, too. "I don't know why ... some people don't think adults are playing video games," Villet wonders. "It's like tunnel vision."

Arlington's humble game selection has only been around for a year, so it's difficult for Villet to know exactly what impact it's had on patron engagement. Her plan for now is to continue acquiring games, including Xbox One and PS4 titles, and she thinks other libraries should do the same. "If libraries really want to survive, they should seriously look into getting video games."library5.jpg

The Next Generation

All four of these video game champions agree that games are here to stay. As each new generation becomes more controller-savvy than the last, we move ever closer to a world of video game fanatics. Groups like the Entertainment Software Association have already shown us that the average game player is around 30, and that consumers are spending more money on games every year. Fortunately, public libraries seem to be picking up on the cultural shift. But we're not quite there yet.

Almost all of my interviewees expressed concern over video game prices and the difficulty of purchasing discs as a municipal entity. Right now there are only a few vendors that sell games to libraries, and they typically don't offer any significant discounts. Starting a game collection at $60 per disc can be strenuous on library budgets. Steep costs, on the other hand, make equalizing access across classes all the more important.

Only time will tell what's in store for publicly accessible video games. With the advent of downloadable console titles, private game libraries are inching towards the digital Steam model, and eventually public libraries will have to make that jump as well. For the sake of art, preservation, and the sheer joy of playing games for free, here's to hoping librarians will continue to champion America's newest favorite pastime.

Matt Akers is an independent contractor based in Boston. He writes about video games and works with a youth literacy project at Harvard. Matt can be found on Twitter @ScholarlyLad.

This blog, originally entitled "Video game champions in the public library," was posted first on Joystiq.

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The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. MassDiGI, based at Becker College, is a statewide center for academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the local games ecosystem. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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