Since finishing my master’s degree last year and obtaining my professional public librarian certification, I think it is pretty safe to say that I am “officially” a librarian. Yet often I find things coming out of my mouth that many seem to consider the antithesis of what it means to be a librarian. I’ve been shushed in my own library, defended video game playing boys to patrons who believe that libraries are only for books and pushed for the purchase of movies I have found to be of great merit or even just interesting (e.g. Django Unchained, Howl’s Moving Castle and Tetsuo the Iron Man.) In my position as program coordinator, I’ve worked on literacy-centered programs, for sure (like preschool story time and author talks) but more often, they have to do with science, games and the outdoors.
In following the interests of some of our younger patrons, I’ve somehow cast myself as the resident Minecraft guru, for better or worse. The kids come running in after school, straight for the computers, and ask me to sign them in or help get them set up. They want to know how to build a nether portal or summon the wither and clearly I’m the only staff person at the library who can help them with this. There have been some mixed reactions to them playing the game in the library. Obviously the kids love it– it’s a place where they came come together and play cooperatively, get technical help if they need it and use a free public Minecraft account if they don’t have the means to purchase their own. A lot of the parents love it too. They see it as a safe environment for the kids to relax. Others have been less positive. Some people feel that it is detrimental to the younger kids to see the older ones glued to the computer screen. Some people are upset that the kids are playing games and not reading, as one “should” do in the library. One anonymous commenter online even said that it was good that the kids came to play at the library, because them being all together in one place would make it easier to kill them all in one shot. There is definitely some hostility directed at these kids (and at games) that I just don’t understand.
Now, I love books. I love reading. I read compulsively and constantly. I read in line and while eating and on the toilet. I read books and forum discussions and articles on the web. So I don’t have it out for books. I do however have a view of the purpose of libraries that allows me to view these Minecraft-playing children with more charity than some people seem to be able to muster. The library is a place for books, surely, but as technology advances and our entertainment options grow, the purpose of the library must grow and change, too.
So what is the purpose of a library if not to be a depository for books? I would argue that a library is the place where storytelling occurs. Books do not have a monopoly on storytelling. While I think that the mental processes involved in reading actual complete works (as opposed to magazines or tweets) are very beneficial, I don’t discount other methods of conveying stories. I want the library to be a place where we can come together and immerse ourselves in the stories around us, whether it be Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or a work of classic fiction, a cerebral documentary or Ted. This emphasis on storytelling, to me, extends to the stories we tell each other, whether they be the description of one patron’s experiences with bee keeping or your own self-branding story you tell on Facebook on the library computer. And yes, this all extends to video games, too. If you watch the children playing games, they’re participating in just as much storytelling as if they were reading a novel. They’re creating their own world that extends beyond the computer screen. They’re drawing pictures of their characters fighting zombies, protecting squid and hunting for treasure. It may seem senseless and silly to many adults, but this is a world that has clicked with many children, and this is not a bad thing.
I also consider the question of whether we are making the library seem to these children to be a positive place. I don’t want to strong-arm anybody into reading. For some people, it’s just not really their thing. Some people are dyslexic or have Down’s Syndrome
or English is not their first language, and they just find reading frustrating. They come in and take out movies or watch videos on Youtube or just come to programs, preferring exercise classes over novels. Who am I to judge? And who am I to draw the line in the sand at Minecraft specifically? If kids (or adults!) see the library as a welcoming place that cares about their interests and doesn’t seek to make them feel guilty for them, maybe they will come back and attend a science class or check out a book. And yes I have seen this happen and it always makes me happy. Maybe it’s a cliche, but I want the kids feel that the library (and, a hem, the librarians) are cool so they keep coming back. Because they don’t have to. Nobody is making them. They could come to us after school or they could go somewhere else. I’d rather they come to us.
That’s not to say that I’d stop at nothing to get them in the door, because clearly there are limits. I just think that games (electronic or not) fall well within those limits. We’re in the business of helping people discover stories and tell their own, and if some people want to tell their story with a blocky avatar with a pixelated sword, so be it. We are making ourselves into their community. We’ll get the books in their hands in time.