If you want to save souls, first you need to put folks in the pews.
It works the same way with libraries, which – without patrons – are just large and imposing buildings full of dust and unread books, begging to be shut down by local officials the next time budgets are awash in red ink.
Still, even for those who would like to see libraries kept open, it’s worth asking: “At what cost?” Traditionalists are sure to be horrified at the news that, in a trend that seems to be growing in popularity, more and more public libraries in the United States are supplementing their supply of books on science, history and literature with video games and big-screen televisions.
What’s wrong with this picture? Those are the types of electronic gadgets that, we have long been told, distract people and prevent them from reading – especially teenagers with short attention spans. So what are they doing inside an increasing number of public libraries in the United States?
It would seem that this is the last place they ought to be. The worldwide video game industry is projected to gobble up more than $70 billion by 2015. Can’t there be one refuge from this tidal wave, and shouldn’t it be a library?
Maybe not. I admit that, when I first heard this story, my initial reaction was a wince. Call me old-fashioned. When I was a teenager, I liked spending time in arcades and in libraries, and yet I never confused the two venues. But the more I heard, the more supportive I became of libraries that go down this road. And I realized that this is just the normal evolution of the worlds of learning and entertainment.
Video games are part of an elaborate attempt to lure teenagers into a library, in the hopes that, before they leave, they might actually crack open a book – or even, dare to dream, check one out. The games have to be age-appropriate, and some are even educational in nature.
According to a study published last year in Library Journal, about 15% of libraries in the United States now check out video games to anyone with a library card. And actual gaming within libraries themselves is believed to be far more common.
Judging from some librarians who couldn’t be happier with the results, the strategy is working. Teenagers – boys in particular – are coming to the library. And, in those libraries that have video games, books are being checked out at a rate that exceeds what it was before the gamers arrived.
It sounds counterintuitive, but what if it turns out that the best way to get teenagers to even step foot into a library is to sweeten the environment with a few digital gadgets.
What’s the harm?
Some might be uneasy with the concept, but what is new and different isn’t necessarily wrong. Those who work in libraries can provide some context. They point out that, 20 years ago, the debate was over having CDs and VHS cassettes available for checkout. Ten years ago, it was over whether libraries should carry DVDs and install personal computers and provide patrons with access to the Internet. And now it’s about video games.
Besides, it’s easy to criticize. But when was the last time any of these traditionalists even stepped foot in a library? When I was growing up in the 1970s, libraries were where you went to read books and research papers. They were a portal to new and exciting worlds, a pathway to adventure.
Today, we do all that through electronic devices we can hold in the palm of our hand. Public libraries could soon become just another relic of the past, like the full-service gas station, the five-and-dime and the soda fountain in the corner drugstore.
For those who love books and value learning, that’s a depressing scenario worth fighting with every available weapon, and every conceivable strategy.