Gorman Gaming Gaffe

There’s an article in the Los Angeles Times about libraries reinventing themselves for digital content when this quote popped out at me:

Some traditional librarians worry that experiments aimed at making libraries more accessible could dumb them down.

“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”

For me, there are a couple of things wrong with this quote. First, when the library can attract anyone into the physical building (teen, adult, kid, senior), you are given any number of opportunities to market other materials and services to them. The teens might not borrow that Dostoyevsky book, but it works to build a relationship between the library and that age group. These relationships and experiences carry forward beyond the teen years in adulthood. This relationship model applies to the other groups I’ve mentioned and works towards the life long relationship that libraries as a whole want to build with people.

The shortsightedness of Mr. Gorman’s quote is that it relies on a notion that there exists an instant or short term conversion of a single interest patron (only checks out DVDs, only attends video game programs, etc.) into a multiple interest patron (starts borrowing other materials or attending other types of programs). That the single purpose of forming a relationship with a patron is to move them into utilizing as many materials, services, and programs as quickly as possible without regard for their current needs. It’s the equivalent of asking someone to marry them on the first date. Just as we look to the future of the library with longevity, so must we give the same consideration to patron relationships. It doesn’t mean we can’t do a hard sell every once in a while, but keeping perspective on the relationship as an ongoing and growing connection over decades.

Second, the tone of the quote is rather dismissive of experimenting with new formats and ideas. The game rooms that Mr. Gorman is lamenting today might be gone in a few years from now because they really don’t further the library’s mission, they fail attract people to the library, or they are simply be untenable for continued funding. Some experiments work, some don’t, but not trying is also not discovering and stifling to innovation. Even in failing, there are insights to be gleaned for future attempts or avoidance of certain strategies.

I would not consider dismissing Mr. Gorman’s quotation because he has only worked in academic libraries all his life (and not in a public library) so I would hope he would give a little more consideration to different ideas being attempted in public libraries for attracting patrons. It is this process of change that leads to a better overall service and product, but there are going to be many missteps along the way. It may be a game room, it could be video games, but it’s going to take many ideas to figure out which ones are good or bad. Hopefully, in the end, this will bring the results that these libraries are looking for: people walking through the door, ready to see what the library has to offer them today.

(h/t: Resource Shelf)

33 thoughts on “Gorman Gaming Gaffe

  1. I’m more offended by this comment from the author of the article ” ….Google Inc. has made the reference desk almost obsolete…”

    Really? I’ve never been so busy as I have been this year. And yeah, reference services come in a variety of formats now, we have IM, txt, email, telephone, and research appointments, in addition to just walking up to the desk, but they haven’t stopped asking reference questions because they have Google.

    • Yeah, I read that as well. I let it go because it’s just plain wrong. The reference desk will die once people have mastered information gathering skills. I’m less worried about that perception than what Michael Gorman was saying in regards to game rooms.

  2. Really?. I think 21st century libraries are going beyond offering only physical resources and becoming more community orientated spaces and places that reflect the needs and interests of the community. I think that what separates libraries from Borders and Barnes & Noble is our unique ability to offer community connections to people in a non-judgmental and free environment. I think gaming is a way to bridge the gaps between generations, cultures and genders. I also believe in the research that supports the notion that games can actually increase academic achievement and success because games stimulate higher level, critical-thinking skills such as logical reasoning and strategy.

    Must be I am delusional.

  3. That’s a response I would expect from Gorman. I could predict it before he said it. Always against, always no, but many agree with him.

    • To be honest, Jeff, I’m wondering if there was an alternative offered but not quoted in the article. I’d love to hear of other solutions to bringing people into the library.

  4. I’m with you on this one Andy. Your observation that the window of opportunity that gaming open is fundamentally about building patron/library relationships and not just a Trojan horse to get the youngins to check out Crime and Punishment is spot on, but there’s also a broader context about gaming’s growing role in media transliteracy.

    Wil Wheaton had a great blog post about gaming as an immersive storytelling medium:

    While he was comparing watching the Lord of the Rings Triology on DVD versus playing Dragon Age, the same comparison could be made between books and games as well. Whether or not we are ready to acknowledge whether video games can be art (see Roger Ebert), an entire generation has already sidestepped that debate, and as librarians we ignore them and their new literacies at our own peril.

  5. So what if the patrons who come into the library only for gaming programs never check out books by, be they classic or contemporary, good and heady stuff or literary garbage? The library has also expanded its media offerings to reflect changes in culture and technology. If this was not true, we would still be offering scholarly works written in Latin and little else. People plays games nowadays, Mr. Gorman. Games are media. Libraries deal in media. See where I’m going with this?

    I love what you have to say about building relationships with patrons, Andy. This blog post just became a reference for a library school paper. 🙂

  6. There’s a thread of thinking I keep coming across in the library world which runs roughly like “Goddammit, we are going to make them eat their vegetables. Vegetables are good for people.” And if people don’t like vegetables, or if you can maybe slip vegetables into other fare, or if people will only believe you that vegetables are tasty after they’ve built a relationship with you around Twinkies, or if maybe there are other kinds of healthy food besides vegetables, and you try to raise that line of argument, the response is pretty much, “Guardians of tradition and civilization. Patrons eat vegetables or starve. Goddammit. Vegetables.”

    And yeah, vegetables are good for people and we’d be better off if we ate more of them, but I just don’t know of any way to productively engage with that thread of thinking.

    (Also: marry on the first date. Lol.)

  7. If a kid comes to the library and plays a game, that’s awesome. Period. He/she doesn’t need to do anything else.

    If a kid visits the library and chats with a friend – that’s awesome, too.

    If Gorman visited the library and played a game … now that would be something.

    • If Gorman visited the library and played a game … now that would be something.

      A board game … possibly.

      Anything which requires electricity; very unlikely. Just checked his wikipedia entry and remembered he was the dude with a personal and enduring, but unexplained, issue with technology, and nearly all of its uses in the library sector:


      But it’s wise to remember he’s probably not alone in the ALA tent. It fascinates me that two of the big (in terms of attendance) non-speaking events at ALA general are the very non-digital book cart trolley formation displays, and the (partially) digital gaming evening. I’ll be glad of the ALA when the latter is better attended than the former.

  8. “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away. ” Linus Pauling

    The tone for the article was set by the title and then repeated through out the article. We must constantly and continually reject the idea that libraries are irrelevant in any of the many forms they take. That libraries are actually resillient and able to respond to new technologies and user interests is seen as a bid for survival rather then it just being what libraries do and have always done. It is so frustrating when others get to frame the discussion, so much time must be spent, yet again, asserting libraries’ value. But as we know it comes with the territory.

    Nice post.

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  10. Andy, I’m with Gorman on this one. You can make all the arguments you want about the values of gaming, and I will admit that many of those arguments are sound, but it would be a big mistake for public librarians to position their libraries as gaming centers. This just screams unnecessary frill to the growing numbers of conservative office holders. The best chance the public library has to grow and prosper in a mediocore economy is to present itself as a necessary part of the educational infrastructure for young people. That’s just political reality. While you can make a very good case that gaming fits into that mission, I’m very certain that your words will be scoffed at by the holders of our purse strings. Sorry, but that’s the political reality and Gorman has been around long enough to understand that. As an advocacy strategy, gaming has huge and risky downsides.

    • Will, I’ll split the difference with you and say that *how* gaming is used in libraries is the important element. Gaming rooms for the sake of gaming rooms? Yeah, I can see that being an issue for budget decision makers. (Although, it does broach the subject as to how much influence politicians should have in making spending decisions about institutions they may not know much about, but I digress.) But gaming as outreach? I mean, the Postal Service sponsors a bicycle team; that acts as good publicity and as well as putting the postal service in a different marketing light.

      I think the same comparison can be drawn between gaming and libraries. As a means of bringing people in or offering additional materials, it works in framing the library in a different way. For the record, I have not had an issue with the creation of a gaming collection, even in a pretty crappy budget year.

      • I’m with Will on this. It’s not just about what libraries do (or don’t do), it’s about what those who vote on budgets think.

        So gaming as part of the overall library? Yes. But not as primary, and to the extent it gets headlines, is it sending the inadvertent wrong message? That is, the library *is* just a gaming center so yes, let’s cut funding/ end libraries because it’s not how tax dollars should be spent. /end speculation on how others think, but when we talk advocacy, etc. we also need to realize the message being sent we didn’t mean to send.

        Will says — education. Which is something that I think some libraries had gotten away from and now, because that is what politicians respond to, libraries are looking to get back into / promote. It’s a bit tough, in that the pursestring holders like it, and yes there is a segment of the community that wants/needs it, but libraries have lately been going the more “get them in by giving them what they want entertainment wise”. That is gaming, graphic novels, etc. So, conflict: build what will guarantee tax dollars? Or what will mean increased usage? As ever, I believe we can do both. As Andy says, how we position gaming — and I’d add, how we promote the educational aspects of the entire library.

        Final thoughts. Education. School librarians and public librarians are very. different. services. Cynically speaking, and with my lawyer devil’s advocate hat on, do public libraries benefit from the demise of school libraries, because now we can assert a better claim to educating students?

    • And I’ll partially agree with you, Will. Definitely, libraries shouldn’t focus on one type of content, and “position their libraries as [fill in the blank] centers.”

      Oh wait. Libraries have already done that. Dang. 🙂

      I’m much more interested in the concept of a library as a community center with easy access to the web, to educational opportunities, to entertainment, and to furthering culture. So yay for books, games, web, computers, meetings, art, etc.

      That’s something that those funder types will back. They do in Topeka, anyway.

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  13. That Gorman quote is very one dimensional. Simply because someone is not READING a classic BOOK by Dostoyevsky (I audited a class on him in college and it rocked) does not mean education isn’t occurring. And I’m not sure that is the strict mission of libraries. Education is a part of the mission. Building community I would argue is also part of the mission, at least it is at our library. I’d also say strengthening democracy is part of the mission. I think depending on your users gaming can be as integral a library offering as books or computers or an environment for others to meet and share ideas. If libraries only focus on READING and BOOKS we’re in for a rude awakening.

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  15. Games, like DVD movies, are not necessarily “technology.” Anything a typical 7 years old can play with should be “toys” rather than “techology.”

    Please stop treating toys (electronic or not) as technolgy, or we will continue to lose funding.

    • I think there is some unnecessary quotation marks going on “there”. You also might want to offer a better argument; you know, one that has “points”.

      • Did not get my points? Andromeda did! OK here are:

        1. E games are simply toys in new format. No bigger deal than old games or basketball. Do E games help make players smarter? Yes, but so do chess and soccer.

        2. Many of us in our profession have the mentality that if someone questions the value of new toys, we accuse them of being against technology. That is very much similar to the 2003 pre-war mentality that if someone questions the war, people would accuse them of being unpatriotic. And we know now the questioners are as patriotic, if not more, and the war did not go well, partly because we were made to praise emporer’s new clothes.

        We in our profession desparately need someone who can say: “The Emporer has nothing on.” Sorry for quotation again 🙂

        • I think you are right that folks should able to freely question the value of new technologies without getting labeled as a luddite or “anti-technology.” I also think it’s good to question the value of different services in the library.

          I also think that gaming, electronic or otherwise, can be a part of libraries depending on the community and what they value. I work at a college where we have an e-game design major, so even though we don’t currently have it, I could see gaming being very much a part of our library.

          But I don’t necessarily think that the emperor has no clothes on, maybe there is only a g-string bikini on, or maybe it’s a really terrible outfit choice, or maybe one thing could be changed and the clothes would be great. Questioning them is always good though.

        • 1. So, should we not collect e-games because they are toys? Because in not collecting e-games, does that mean libraries shouldn’t have games at all? Nevermind checkers and chess, but other toys like building blocks or lending bicycles? How about libraries that *do* lend out soccer balls and other sports equipment?

          I’m just curious where the ‘collecting of game’ line is crossed. Nevermind there is no substantiation for your “stop collecting games or we will lose money” line.

          2. That’s an old canard. And since I did not engage in that, you can take it up with the posters who did.
          I welcome questioning of technologies as I engage in the same thing myself; nothing should simply get a pass when it comes to inclusion (although it does at times).

          The Emperor has clothing on here. It reads: “Come to the library.” What is new here is that we have to market our materials and services as just another voice in this new information world. Gaming is just another form of marketing and/or outreach to building future relationships.

          If you haven’t read the followup post to this, I suggest doing so as well.

    • Andy, I think the emperor’s wardrobe here has a point. My 3-year-old plays some video games and knows some of how my computer works, and to her it’s definitely more like what we’d call a toy than what we’d call technology. I mean, it’s a toy that happens to say “MacBook”, but it’s really just a different way of interacting with concepts she could also have interacted with in toy or book form. (TextEdit is like her magnetic alphabet, with an unlimited supply of letters. Google Street View is a highly customizable geography picture book. Et cetera.)

      Sometimes it’s useful to think of new technology in the ways it’s new and different. But sometimes it’s more useful, or accurate, to think of it in the ways it’s the same as existing technologies. And, in light of the funding questions, it truly might be more helpful to draw those parallels with familiar library stuff and services. (Lots of libraries have toys in their children’s rooms, yes? One of the ones near me will let you check them out for use in the library. Good times.)

  16. Sooo late to this conversation. Oh well… I was just wondering what Gorman does at his library that makes all those kids pick up Dostoyevsky? I’d love to hear from him.

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