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“To today’s children linear storylines are boring and only relevant in school. Providing access to games/stories became one of the missions of our youth services department. We wanted to be exciting, fun, and relevant to the young customers we see in our library every day.”

Take a look at this American Libraries article about how popular a library can be simply by providing video games and equipment. Then come back and shoot me.

It’s not that I object to the library circulation of video games. Knock yourselves out. It’s the rationale. Since birth, I have given adults who were trying  to be “exciting, fun, and relevant” a wide berth, and I suspect that these librarians are taking the games more seriously than do the kids themselves.  I also think it is rather counter-countercultural to use the ratings determined by the industry’s self-regulatory agency to decide which kids get to play what. Are the selection process and access policies suspended for non-book materials?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >"We would not think of denying our customers the latest fiction, but regularly deny them storylines that are just as relevant to the daily conversations and lives of library users."

    Storylines? I watched some of these games when I worked in a children's library, and none of them ever had anything I'd call a storyline.

    I love the phrase "today's children." As if all children are identical. I know children who love nothing better than settling in with a book with a "linear" storyline, as well as writing, and often illustrating, their own. I also know kids who love having "linear" stories read to them. Some play games and read. It's not either/or.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >"Children and teens without access to video games are missing out on a part of their culture that is and will be relevant to them in the future. While older generations can sing the entire Gilligan’s Island theme song, children today have entire conversations that take place using a cultural frame of reference that comes from video games."

    OMG, I didn't realize how important this is for kids! The mention of "Gilligan's Island" really reframes the whole thing doesn't it? Luckily I was able to watch Gilligan's Island at home, since my local library was not 'relevant' enough at the time to provide this cultural touchstone for my life and my future.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >The line that comes to mind: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." Swap village for Houston Public Library, crank up the Arkham Asylum, and you're good to go.

  4. Anonymous says:

    >Okay, there are some things I need to know. When it says that the circulation of library materials has risen, is that just the controllers being checked out or is there also a significant rise in reading material?

    If they have a nice gaming community and they read more books, that's fine. The only really offensive sentence in the whole piece was the amazingly self-important and stupid one you picked out, Roger. And you know, we all say Way Stupid things when we get excited.

    It's true, there are story lines in the games. It's true that sharing our stories with our community is awesome. It's not essential, but it's not a bad thing. If you can show me that it also leads to more reading, then sign me for the video games

    On the other hand, if you show me that you've now arranged to have a whole library full of louts and my rather timid fourteen year old self would no longer have the library as a safe space to get AWAY from the louts in order to read. . . . then forget you library lady. Libraries should be for readers first.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >There's an odd difference between this article as it was first published on the web and its appearance in the November/December print issue of American Libraries. The sentence "To today's children linear storylines are boring . . ." is changed in the print version to read "To many of today's children linear storylines are boring . . . ." So someone eventually picked up on that particular idiocy.

    It's a really old argument. At first, people objected when anything other than classics were put in public libraries. And every time a new medium came along, there was always someone who wanted to put it in and someone else who wanted it out. Toys, games, and tools have all had their adherents.

    In this case at Houston, it seems like a lion's share of money, time and physical space is being devoted to video games. Given how much kids like these games, it's a no-brainer that the initiative is popular. I just wonder why it's the library that's doing it–I can't figure out where the professional expertise comes into it.

  6. >It's not about linearity it's about control. In a well-built game you decide the course of the story, in a book the author does.

    But the out-of-date thinking comes in the form of imagining that any type of storytelling is obsolete. We're not replacing one kind of storytelling with another, we're adding new ways to tell stories. The library should justify their games on that basis.

    I've put together a deal with a major publisher, a major digital company and will soon add sponsors, for a project that will be created as a book, an e-book, an enhanced e-book, and various levels of app and game, all at the same time, from the same basic story.

    It's not either/or, it's all of the above. But for writers who don't want to tell stories that way there will be plenty of opportunity to tell straightforwardly linear stories. Nothing is going away, much is being added.

  7. bookballoon says:

    >Thank you, Michael, for your insightful comments. I am weary with the "either/or" mentality of so many people, even librarians and educators. If these librarians are doing their job, they're selecting on the basis of quality, as well as regard for appeal. If this game selection interferes with the promotion of books, or with the acquisition of them, it represents short-sighted judgment. Most of these games will not wind up being significant aspects of our culture; they'll be discarded and forgotten. That doesn't mean that some will, however, have value — including storytelling value. The human psyche has not changed. We love stories. We need them. If librarians forget that, we're in trouble.

  8. >Roger, I'm curious.

    Most libraries depend on public funding. So, if you keep some portion of the public (and their voting parents) happy, your library's doors stay open. Do people in the profession talk openly about this sort of thing? Or are we supposed to realize that's what they REALLY mean when they cheer about getting lots of kids into their library and having circulation go up?

    I'm not keen to have to have the libraries turn themselves into gaming arcades, but should I face facts and realize that's the price of keeping books on the shelves?

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >Public librarians think and talk about their public–and their funding–all of the time. Serving youth is a complication, though, as what kids want and what their parents (and taxpayers) want can be very different things. I don't know how Houston taxpayers feel about this video game program but I could see someone (like me, heh) making a big stink. And even if the naysayers are in the minority, we know from countless book challenges that a few stinkers can clear the room.

    I don't think it's either/or, either. I simply find the argument–because kids like video games and because these games have storylines that kids reference, such games belong in the library–meretricious. We grab our metaphors everywhere.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >I agree that it's not either/or; it's more. But I want a caveat attached to "In a well-built game you decide the course of the story…"

    Even in the most expansive of games, you still operate within narrowly drawn parameters. Real control? Not even close.

    One gets nothing like control while reading, either, of course, but control is not why people read books. I'm not sure it's why they play games, either, come to think of it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    >I am getting flashbacks to acoustic guitars in 70's church services…

  12. >The danger to public libraries is very great.

    Thanks to Google libraries have lost their research function for all but the poor or the technologically lagging.

    As e-books drive down the price of new books — and don't imagine the publishers will be able to hold the line at $9.99 — the economic logic of waiting in line for a new release at the library, or picking up Canterbury Tales will disappear for all but the poor and technologically lagging.

    So within a few years public libraries will be a service that primarily serves the poor. All funding of public institutions is political. The poor don't have a lot of political muscle.

    Imagine a town council meeting in 5 years, and imagine the arguments pro and con on building a library. The "cons" will have numbers, the "pros" will have an appeal to sentiment and tradition.

  13. >Anecdotally, Michael, I don't see what you see. I've lived in a lot of places and been to a lot of libraries and what I see mostly are lower middle class and middle class with a fair bit of the very wealthy.

    My family can go through thirty books a week. In our picture book hey-day it was closer to a hundred books a week. I don't know how rich I'd have to be to support a habit like that.

    I think the division is between readers and non-readers, not the moneyed versus the poor. If every generation fewer people read books, how long before the taxpayers see the library the way many people look at the National Parks. "I never go there, why should I pay for them?"

    So maybe sacrificing a part of your budget to keep your institution valuable to the community is just good planning. But as you said, Roger, claiming that you are doing it for "the stories" seems meretricious. But can a library director write an article for the SLJ that says that says "we are selling out so we can keep our doors open?" Or would that director be pilloried by other librarians?

  14. >I always feel I should preface this kind of note by saying that I love librarians. Teachers, not always, but librarians yes.

    I assume you are correct about the current situation. But I think we are just at the start of a revolution. Granted that I'm an early-adopter but I find myself doing with books what I started doing maybe 3 or 4 years ago with DVD's: I'd rather have the download.

    My total book "consumption" is rising while my purchases of paper books are dropping like a rock. And again, this is at the very start of the revolution.

    Soon new e-books will drop in price. I expect they'll mostly settle in the $4-$5 range. Public domain e-books will be free. There will be a premium for enhanced e-books (most likely as apps) but those will tend to be for high-concept books and series. And many e-books and enhanced e-books will carry sponsors — advertising.

    Full disclosure: I'm not just predicting that, I'm working to make it happen. I'm not alone.

    A few assumptions: within a few years the majority of readers will own an iPad or other digital book reader. Within a few years all public domain books will be available as free downloads. And within a few years the cost of a new e-book will be, say, $4.50.

    That sharply reduces the number of people who will need a library or find a library profitable in terms of their time and taxes.

    If it was me trying to figure out how to keep bookstores and libraries in business, I'd be focusing on the glaring weakness of e-book stores: you can't browse worth a damn. Probably 70% of books I've ever bought came from browsing shelves.

    So if I had a bookstore I'd be trying to figure out how to enable easy point-of-browsing sales. Maybe you browse the store, see something interesting, aim your iPhone at a special barcode that credits the bookstore as the vendor.

    Libraries could do the equivalent, perhaps with time limits just as iTunes does for rental movies.

    — Michael Grant

  15. Anonymous says:

    >A propos of this conversation, it looks as if the LA County Library is running into financial difficulties:

    But the size of the deficit — about $22 million a year over the next decade — may mean even deeper cuts into hours of operation and services that include homework help, children's story time and gang prevention efforts.

    That's what libraries are really for, Roger. Gang prevention efforts!

  16. >'Since birth, I have given adults who were trying to be "exciting, fun, and relevant" a wide berth…'

    You make me smile to the toes of my socks, Roger. Thank you.

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