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Libraries score with video games

Times Staff Writer

Once a month, the San Fernando Library’s librarians trade their reading glasses for video-game controllers and invite children to come crank up the volume.

Elias Ponce and about a dozen teenagers shuffle past the stacks of books to the youth section and play “Guitar Hero,” a game that lets them pretend they’re in a rock band.

“It makes the library a fun place,” said Ponce, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who says he now goes to the library every day even when there are no games.

Libraries are turning to video games to connect with teenagers who have outgrown story time. Almost a quarter of libraries surveyed last year by Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies had put on video game events.

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About half of Los Angeles County’s 88 public libraries hold gaming events at least once a month. Administrators credit the practice with helping boost teenage attendance by about 50% since the county started a pilot program two years ago.

The American Library Assn. is giving games its stamp of approval this year. The group designated Friday the first National Gaming @ Your Library Day.

“It lets teens be more comfortable with the library and become familiar with librarians,” San Fernando librarian Lydia Harlan said. “And it’s what kids are into these days.”

That doesn’t mean libraries will turn into arcades, said Loriene Roy, the association’s president and a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information. Roy said libraries established themselves as places for both education and entertainment more than a century ago when they created controversy by beginning to lend fiction books.

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Now libraries circulate all manner of items other than books, including music albums, tools, toys, cake pans, even animals.

“Libraries are about providing public access to resources, in whatever format,” she said. “It goes back to what people want.”

Video games are as much in demand as any other form of entertainment, drawing in almost $40 billion in annual sales worldwide. That’s more than the recorded music industry and about equal to movie box office revenue. In the United States, two out of three household heads play computer or video games, according to the industry’s trade group, the Entertainment Software Assn.

Playing games is the Internet’s most popular leisure activity -- more than watching videos and visiting social networking sites such as MySpace, according to technology research firm Parks Associates.

Video game publishers are thankful for the publicity.

“It’s a great way to sample our games, and we have found that experiencing our games as a trial often leads to a purchase,” said Holly Rockwood, spokeswoman for Electronic Arts Inc., the world’s largest video game software company.

For public libraries, games are part of a broader effort to reach out to teenagers.

“Libraries have wonderful children’s programs and programs for adults,” said Penny Markey, coordinator of youth services for the County of Los Angeles Public Library. “But when it comes to programs serving teens, the numbers drop off. Games help us bridge that gap.

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“It’s a changing world. Teens are the next adults, the next taxpayers. And the library needs to be seen as an important and relevant resource for them.”

Circulation had been declining at the Laguna Hills Technology Branch Library, but it began to edge upward after the facility started holding online game events every Friday night six months ago.

Branch manager Sheila Stone said she wasn’t sure that there was a direct correlation, but she noted that the librarians recommend books to the visiting game-players. “So there may be a relationship,” she said.

A 2007 survey of 400 U.S. libraries by Syracuse’s School of Information Studies found that three-quarters of those who took part in game events returned for other services.

Heather Gordon does. Since trying out “Wii Sports” a few months ago at the Pine Valley Library, about 45 miles east of San Diego, the 9-year-old has returned every Friday to take part in the library’s other craft and science activities. She also has borrowed a few books.

“I think I’ll check out a book about dragons,” Heather said last Friday after trying her hand at playing billiards on the Nintendo Wii console.

Her mother, Deborah Gordon, doesn’t object to her daughter playing video games at the library.

“I want the library to be a place my daughter loves to go,” said Gordon, an education specialist.

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Although most libraries that offer games think of them as entertainment, some see them as educational.

“It’s a form of media literacy,” said Eli Neiburger, associate director of information technology and product development at the Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan, which became one of the first libraries in the country to offer video games when it began holding tournaments in 2004.

“You can’t play video games if you can’t read. But it’s more than just text,” Neiburger said. “It’s about decoding meaning from symbols and the ability to understand complex systems of abstraction.”

Heather learned some of that by shooting virtual pool in the community room of her small library. She fumbled with a wireless controller the size of a large candy bar as eight other children helped her figure out how to best position the cue ball on the 6-foot projector screen.

“Oh, I see,” she said, swiftly executing a poking motion with the controller and neatly pocketing a green ball.

“Nice!” one child said.

Game events are not always so polite, particularly among teenage boys.

“There will be some trash talking,” Neiburger said. “You just have to be prepared to let boys be boys.”

The music thumping in the background and cheering from the audience aren’t quiet, either. But neither are story time and other activities offered by libraries, Roy said.

“People ask me, ‘Isn’t it supposed to be quiet in a library?’ ” she said. “Libraries are creating social commons for people to interact with each other.”

Some librarians have wondered whether their peers were resorting to stunts to attract young patrons. They have debated whether video games belong in libraries.

“Why do we have to lure kids into the library with candy?” Steven M. Cohen wrote in January on his blog, LibraryStuff.net. “Shouldn’t good literature be good enough?”

Cohen, a senior librarian at Law Library Management Inc., declined to be interviewed for this story.

Others believe games are a legitimate media no different from DVDs or the classic board games that many libraries have offered for decades.

“Libraries are about content, whether it’s in a book or in a DVD or on the Internet,” said Jenny Levine, an Internet specialist at the American Library Assn. “We don’t discriminate on the container or form that it’s in. If chess is OK, then why not video games?”

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alex.pham@latimes.com


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