How are libraries supporting gaming: A pilot exploration



Over the last few years, some libraries have been turning to gaming activities like Dance Dance Revolution as a way of bringing in new demographic groups and exposing them to library services. Recently, Jenny Levine, a.k.a. The Shifted Librarian, wrote an American Library Association publication highlighting different types of video gaming activities in libraries (Levine, 2006,) and other librarians have written about their experiences in print and online (Neiburger, 2007; Schmidt, 2006; Gallaway, Schwarzwalder, Czarnecki, 2007). Gaming is rapidly growing into the next new media as sales of games have outpaced box office sales and are predicted to grow beyond music sales in the near future (Alpert, 2007; Cheng, 2007). Just as libraries have caused controversy in the past by adding fiction to their offerings and circulating recreational videos, libraries are creating controversy today by supporting gaming through in-house gaming activities and circulation of gaming materials.

At this point, there is little data about the penetration of gaming in library services. There is anecdotal data and guides to best practice, but there is little data about how many libraries are supporting gaming and in what ways. Over the last year, the Library Game Lab of Syracuse has done a number of surveys to understand how libraries are using and supporting games. The purpose of this short paper/poster is to present the results from these first few surveys and to engage attendees in discussions about future research needs and paths to explore the intersection of gaming and libraries.

The 2007 Surveys

During 2007, we did two surveys of libraries to begin to paint a baseline. The first survey was a based random sample of 400 public libraries. We called each library and talked with them about how they support gaming. We managed to contact 96% of the sample and collected data about their gaming services and offerings.

The second survey was less scientific but still provided useful data. For this survey, we posted requests to many librarian listservs calling for libraries that ran gaming programs in 2006 to tell us about how they support gaming. From this survey, we learned about what types of gaming programs libraries ran, the goals and outcomes of these programs, and learned more about how the field perceives “gaming.”

We are going to repeat this second survey in early 2008 for library programs that ran in 2007. As more libraries are learning about gaming, it is expected that our response to this survey will be stronger than last year's survey. Our plan is to compare the results from year to year and to have this data ready for the poster session.

A Few Highlights

While this short paper is not the place to present many of the results from the first two surveys, here are a few of the highlights:

The most important question in this survey was the first one - does the library support gaming? We asked the library to consider gaming in a broad sense, including anything from hosting the local chess club to allowing patrons to play Web-based games to circulating tabletop or digital games to providing resources for patrons to create their own games. The result is that most U.S. public libraries support gaming. In fact, 77% (+/−5%) of the public libraries surveyed supported gaming in some way. Even taking the margin of error into account, we are comfortable saying that at least 7 out of 10 public libraries support gaming.

This is a higher portion than many might expect. There are two types of common gaming that came out in discussion with libraries. For decades, public libraries have supported gaming by providing chess sets and other games in the children's area. A more recent type of game enjoyed by patrons in libraries are Web-based games; in fact, women over the age of 40 are more likely to play these online games than other demographic groups (CNN, 2004). The contrast between these gaming types suggests the importance of taking a holistic view of gaming, including both traditional and digital forms of games.

We then moved on to ask about formal programs where the library facilitated gaming activities. We found that 43% (+/-5%)of our sample hosted formal gaming programs where patrons played games in the library. We also found that a small portion, only 20% (+/−5%), of surveyed libraries circulated games. We then asked libraries if patrons were allowed to play games on the computers in the libraries. An astounding 82% of libraries did allow patrons to play games on the computers in the libraries. When contrasted with the first question, at least 5% of the libraries surveyed allowed patrons to play games on computers in the library, but did not see that as supporting gaming in the library.

The second survey turned findings that were anecdotal in nature, as it was not as controlled a survey as the first. One pattern is that many librarians think of “gaming” as electronic gaming. Our random sample found that tabletop games were the most popular gaming program in libraries, but when we made our calls for librarians running gaming programs to tell us about them, digital games were the most heavily reported. This indicates the importance of advocacy and education for librarians to help them understand the breadth of gaming experiences.

We also learned about goals and outcomes of gaming programs. We asked librarians to identify all of the goals for the gaming program and then to identify the single most important goal. While providing entertainment was the most common goal, it was not the most important goal; that was providing a service for the underserved with 35% of the respondents. Other goals important to librarians were increasing the role as a library's hub and providing a service for current users. Top outcomes included improving the reputation of the library with attendees, having library users return another time to use library services, and improving social connections between attendees.

More complete results will be presented on the poster at the conference. In addition, the poster will present information about the Portable Library Game Lab Exhibit, which travels to library conferences as a way of informing librarians of the variety of gaming experiences, collecting information from these libraries about their gaming needs, and then relaying those needs back to industry.