Monday, March 24, 2008

Playing Games at the Library

The main lobby of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue was buzzing Friday with kids playing video games. The library thinks it’s creating a new learning environment and bridging a generation gap. To me, as a teacher and lifelong library user, it looks like a road to nowhere.

The problem isn’t multimedia, the Web, or educational video games. At their best, they dramatically expand students’ intellectual experiences. And I’ve worked on Web-based learning projects and use them in my own classes.

The problem lies in the relentlessly commercial games offered at the event, “Game On @ The Library!” “Guitar Hero” and “Super Smash Brothers Brawl” don’t connect easily with the riches in the rest of the library. And they don’t encourage the habits of mind—close reading, independent analytic thinking, and strong writing--that students need to succeed in the classroom and in life.

The library staffers I spoke with didn’t share my concerns. This is only the beginning of a dialogue, they said. While the kids play the games they’re already learning strategy, calculation, and visual sense.

But where’s the bridge to the rest of the library? They assured me it will come.

I looked around the hall, though, and didn’t see anything to lure the kids into books, films, or the library’s vast digital holdings.

The library’s Web page promoting “Game On” says video games “make learning fun” and lower “the emotional stakes of failing.” They encourage kids to make their own discoveries. They’re an active experience. They overcome language barriers because you don’t have to speak English to participate.

Maybe, but good teachers already know how to make these things happen in a classroom or on the Web. As for serving library visitors that don’t speak English, the library already has a heroic history of lending books to immigrants in the many languages of our world.

The library, which is increasingly circulating video games throughout its system, is confusing the world of work and the world of play. Both have a place in learning, but they don’t always overlap. And making the connection between the two is difficult.

At Rutgers-Newark, where I teach many students who are immigrants or the first in their family to attend college, we devote a lot of reading, writing and class discussions to subjects such as the Supreme Court decision in the Pentagon Papers case. It’s hard, detailed work. But it’s worthwhile because we develop the ideas that help us live as citizens in a democracy. The talents you acquire racing cars in “Burn Out” don’t prepare you to do that.

The library staff might say that “Burn Out” is only a visitor’s first stop at the library, not his last. But the programmed experiences available yesterday don’t compare to open-ended explorations in a library.

In the Seventies, as a teenage in New Jersey, I spent days wandering in a local library. One day, I picked up a collection of newspaper columns by Pete Hamill; one piece was about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War. One thing led to another: I talked with my dad about men he knew from East New York who fought in Spain; I wrote my first college term paper on the Lincoln Brigade; I befriended one of the volunteers. Today I write on the Spanish Civil War and serve on the board of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. It all began with a trip to the library and it continues with visits to the library. I just can’t imagine anything comparable growing out of a session with “Excite Truck.”

Of course, as I have learned from my children, their friends, and my students, the enjoyment of video games is perfectly consistent with a life of literate learning. It’s just that one doesn’t automatically lead to the other. Despite the claims of the good people at the library, I fear that we are on the edge of dividing our young people into those who can read, write and play video games and those who can just play video games.

The real problem here is the library promoting games produced to entertain and make money for corporations. The library might have exhibited the best new digital learning exercises created by educators. It might have put the real effort of education in the foreground. It might have done the work of leading visitors from the games to the kind of learning that goes on in the rest of its collections. Instead, it turned its great hall into an ad for the likes of “College Hoops 2K7.”


Janice said...

It depends of which "library staffer" you ask and how free they feel to express their opinions. Friends of mine who work there feel that current developments are equal to the destruction of the Alexandrian library -- the demise of one of the world's great research libraries. Your comments are very well said. This is a story that begs wider exposure -- to contradict the NYPL public relations juggernaut. Janice

Rob Snyder said...

I'm glad to hear that there are people inside the library who are skeptical about recent trends there. Let's share these ideas, and posts, to get a conversation going.

Jeffrey said...

The saddest part of this story is that the NYPL is planning to close the Mid-Manhattan Branch across the street and bring that circulating collection into the research library. This is sad because first, the sale of the old Arnold Constable Department Store building diminishes the historic streetscape (there is not a prayer that the Landmarks Preservation Commission will intervene to protect that stately structure). Sadder still, by ssying they are interested in "democratizing" the research library and making it more welcoming to the community, they are implicitly playing the race card, pitting the elitist academic types against innocent little school children. Make no mistake: this is a real estate deal, not an expansion of library services.

Katco said...

I hadn't known about this Games "initiative" at NYPL until now, yet I am not surprised. Just another in a long line of ill-conceived strategies to get kids into the library - as if getting them inside the structure will magically make them want to learn. You're right - there's no automatic connection. I'm going to repeat what I posted to the Brian Lehrer show website in response to "Not Your Father's Library" ( The fact that so many people (especially librarians themselves) feel the need to woo patrons with cafes and big subject heading signs and entertainment media is one of the many symptoms of the dumbing down of our society. Not only should libraries and librarians stand up for themselves instead of caving to the pressures of the youth market, but parents and teachers should be reinforcing the true purpose and value of these institutions.

Rob Snyder said...

The pernicious thing about attempts to "democratize" libraries by opening them up to commercial games and entertainment is that these efforts confuse what is democratic about a public research library.

What makes the main research branch of the New York Public Library democratic is that it is a world-class research library open to anyone who is there to do serious work. Any other definition subverts the core purpose of the library and turns it into another kind of institution.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with Jeffrey in his comment about the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Branch of NYPL on the heels of the Donnelle sale" "Make no mistake: this is a real estate deal, not an expansion of library services." First NYPL screws its workers, now it goes corporate: money first; the people of New York last.

Former NYPLer

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