Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 3: Games and Gaming

On November 15, 2008, libraries across the United States participated in a simultaneous nation-wide video game tournament. It was part of the American Library Association’s (ALA) National Gaming Day @ your library.

The playful objective of the day was to set the record for the most number of people to play the same board game on the same day. The more serious objective was to raise awareness about the use of games as a library program. On that day in 2008, more than 14,000 people participated in National Gaming Day at 597 libraries. The level of participation demonstrated a way for libraries to reach beyond their traditional patron base to reach new participants. ALA organized the National Gaming Day to suggest that games may be a way for libraries to creatively fulfill the part of their mission to “provide cultural, recreational, and entertaining materials” as they continue to also provide academic curriculum support and resources for industries and professions. As Jim Rettig ( ALA President, 2008-2009) writes: “Games of every type play an important role in developing fundamental competencies for life. They require players to learn and follow complex sets of rules, make strategic and tactical decisions, and increasingly, collaborate with teammates and others: all things they will have to do in colleen and in the workforce.”



Beth Gallaway: “The Librarian’s Guide to Gaming!”


To assist libraries in their efforts to develop meaningful game-related activities, the ALA has developed a toolkit for librariesto use that includes resources, guidelines, and best practices.

The ALA asserts that the development of gaming services and events demonstrates how the community library functions as a “third place” for people to inhabit BETWEEN school and home. The library as “third place” offers not only information access for the purposes of learning, but also recreational and social experiences. The value of games is clear, according to the ALA website: “Board games, card games, and videogames are, in essence, information, and the human act of telling stories, presented in new formats that involve the player.” Over the past two years, several resources have been developed to guide libraries in creating appropriate game-based events and policies.

The Games in Libraries podcast began in April 2008 as a transmedia site that included links to relevant blog discussions, ALA press releases, articles on games, mainstream press articles, a flickr site for game photos, interviews with librarians on gaming, and an announcement of the National Gaming @ your library day. The Games in Libraries podcast is produced by Scott Nicholson and created by a slate of regular contributors including Beth Gallaway who created the YouTube video (above) on the “Librarian’s Guide to Gaming.” Gallaway also maintains her own blog called “Game On: Games in Libraries.”

Other Blogs that address topics of Library and Gaming include:

Jenny Levine’s blog called “the Shifted Librarian” often reports on games and libraries. Her blog is active and frequently cited among those interested in games and libraires. On March 18, 2009 she reported on the “Library Mini Golf” event held at the Downers Grove Library in Illinois that she will use as a case study in her forthcoming article in Library Technology Reports.

The blog by Scott Rice and Amy Harris called Library Games. Although it appears that this hasn’t been updated since 2007, there are useful links on it. Several other blogs refer to Rice and Harris’ “information literacy game” that is discussed in several posts on the site.

Bibliographic Gamingia a blog for librarians interested in using video games to teach.

Brian Mayer’s blog, Library Gamerchronicles his thoughts on libraries and literacy. See also his creative “comic book” piece called “Libraries Got Game” that makes connections between modern board games and the new American Association of School Library standards for the 21st Century Learner.”

Key Issues: The Public Value of Games

In the November 2008 GamesinLibraries podcast, the issue of game violence came up–particularly in the case of first person shooter games (for example, Halo3). This points out one of the key issues discussed among librarians about the role of gaming within libraries in terms of the characteristics of “appropriate game playing” experiences. Game events and services use library resources, spaces and people. As librarians investigate the range of games and game playing that is available for collection, circulation, and staging, they are finding that not everyone agrees that games belong in libraries. For example, one community library in Nebraska was rebuffed by the state Auditor of Public Accounts who responded that “the purchase of gaming equipment is a questionable use of public funds.” The audit and the auditor’s evaluation prompted a joint conference of the Nebraska Library Association and the Nebraska Educational Media Association where participants discussed how libraries might appropriately integrate games into their programming. (See the ALA report of the exchange:

Nebraskan librarians who supported the use of public funds to purchase library game resources reported that they did so because library patrons were requesting game demonstrations. Before the purchase, librarians brought their personal systems to the library to share and show to library patrons. The auditor’s report also took issue with the use of “state equipment” for the purposes of playing games and accessing virtual websites (sic)” by library employees. What is revealed in the occasion of the auditor’s evaluation, and the resulting discussion is that there are debates about the value of game collecting, circulating, and playing as part of library programming.


In the Nebraska case, the games in question included Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band. It is unclear at this point the extent to which libraries are making distinctions between types of games for the purposes of restricting the use of some, in favor of others. The games that allow users to create content and to modify game environments might be less contentious acquisitions than those that include simulated violence.

An Annual Survey of Games in Libraries

In his forthcoming book, Go Back to Start: Gathering Baseline Data about Games in Libraries, Scott Nicholson presents the results of surveys conducted in 2007 that asked a random sample of 400 public libraries about their use (or non-use) of games as part of their services. (An early article on the 2006 survey is available online at:

Nicholson reminds readers that public libraries have a long history in allowing game playing (such as chess and Go) in their spaces. What’s new, he argues, is not the presence of games within libraries, but the type of games and game-based activities that libraries are now exploring as part of their programming efforts. Some of the key findings from his 2007 surveys:

77% of those surveyed stated that they had some sort of gaming program. These games range from chess sets to Web-based games.

38% support a formal gaming program.

13% said they offered console games like Nintendo and Xbox.

20% had game circulation.

82% allowed library patrons to play games on the library computers.

In discussing the results, he notes that the size of the library matters in terms of the inclusion of gaming activities. Larger libraries (those that serve more than 50,000 patrons) are more likely to include gaming activities than smaller libraries (those that serve less than 3000 patrons). Common types of games most frequently circulated and supported in libraries include board games and traditional games, fewer libraries report circulating video console games. One of the most surprising finding is that more than 80% of the libraries (regardless of size) allow patrons to play PC/Web games on library equipment.

Some of the reasons that libraries report as objectives for their gaming initiatives include: to provide a source of entertainment for members of the community; to provide an additional service to active library users; to attract an under-served group of users to the library, and to increase the library’s role as a community hub. The single most cited reason (when asked to pick one main objective): to attract an underserved group of users to the library.

Nicholson reports that the survey documented two negative outcomes that libraries encounter in the context of game programming: 1) 15% of librarians report that patrons who participate in gaming events did not return for other events, and 2) 10% of respondents indicated that other patrons were annoyed with the gaming activity. While Nicholson admits that it is difficult to draw broad conclusions from survey data, he does assert that gaming services do serve the public community library’s mission in serving community members. He argues for the development of additional surveys a more systematic investigation of the incorporation of gaming in library programming.

Citations and References

Braun, L. W. (2004). “What’s in a Game?” VOYA, August: 89.

Gallaway, B. (2006). “Get Your Game On: What Makes a Good Game, Anyway? VOYA.

Levine, J. (2006). “Gaming & Libraries: Intersection of Services.” Library Technology Reports42 (5).

Mayer, B. “Libraries Got Game.”

National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). ”Public Library (Public Use) Data Files”

Neiburger, E.. (2007). “Gamers … in the library?” American Libraries Association38 (5), 58-60.

Nicholson, S.. (2007) “The Role of Gaming in Libraries: Taking the Pulse.” White paper available from

Nicholson, S.. (Forthcoming). Go Back to Start: Gathering Baseline Data about Gaming in Libraries.” (Preprint available at http://librarygamelab.orgbactostart.pdf

Scalzo, J.. (2009). “Video Game Librarian.” January 5, 2009.

Schmidt, A. (2006). “Are you Game?” School Library Journal52 (6), 52-54.

Submitted by Anne Balsamo with research assistance from Cara Wallis.

Author Bio: Anne Balsamo directs the Interactive Media Division’s Co-Design Lab in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She teaches courses in design across the curriculum, public interactives, and culture and technology for the Interactive Media Arts and Practice program, the Interactive Media Division, and The Annenberg School of Communication at USC. She is also a freelance museum exhibit developer and curator who has created interactive exhibits for the International Museum of Women, the San Jose Tech Museum, the Papalote Children’s Museum in Mexico City, Liberty Science Center, and the Singapore Science Center. Her new research effort called “The Tangible Culture Research Project” investigates the design of evocative (mixed reality) knowledge objects and the role of tinkering in a digital age. For more information about her current work and new transmedia book project, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work visit (to be launched July, 2009)