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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume IV, Issue 2
November 2007   

Libraries at Play: From “Homo Liber” to “Homo Ludens”

by Joe Lucia

By repute and for the most part in historical practice, libraries, and particularly academic libraries, have been quiet places devoted to learning and inquiry. But that aspect of the library experience, often represented by the pop culture image of a bun-wearing, shushing librarian who’s more interested in silence than in pleasure, diminishes the vibrancy and creativity evident in the current library environment. Over the past decade, academic libraries have embraced a range of activities that extend and enhance traditional scholarly functions.

Two of my previous columns have been written on “library as place” and “library as commons.” Innovative libraries tend to inflect those dimensions of their mission in some surprising ways. A key recent trend is the embrace of video games and interactive gaming, critical components of digital culture for anyone under the age of 35, as a way to engage the imaginations young people growing up in an information eco-system where the centrality of printed texts is significantly diminished.

One might say, “gaming, libraries, huh?” But a quick look back at Johan Huizinga’s classic work, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture, provides the following framing remark:

Even those activities which aim at the immediate satisfaction of vital needs – hunting, for instance – tend, in archaic society, to take on the play-form. Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhance its value. It is through playing that society expresses its interpretation of life and the world. By this we do not mean that play turns into culture, rather that in its earliest phases culture has the play-character, that it proceeds in the shape and the mood of play. In the twin union of play and culture, play is primary. (46)

Libraries are cultural heritage institutions. If at some level culture is co-extensive with play, then gaming in its more local current manifestations is certainly within the purview of libraries. One thing we need to get past is the veneer of solemnity and seriousness of purpose that too often attends the library “meme” in academic contexts. Sam Demas, College Librarian at Carleton College, in a superb article on the contemporary evolution of libraries in liberal arts institutions, opines:

Liberal arts college libraries in particular have developed a wealth of fun traditions to leaven the intense scholarly atmosphere. Amherst College throws a dance party in the library for first-year students—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to let loose in the library. St. Olaf College hosts an annual benefit miniature-golf game that has patrons putting through the library's far reaches. ... Mt. Holyoke's library hosts a student theater production in its lobby each year. These are but a few examples of the fun side of library life. Each library finds its own ways of celebrating community and its role in community building.

With such library antics becoming commonplace, how can people raise their eyebrows at a little video gaming? In addition, important recent research findings in education studies indicate video gaming is replete with engaging learning experiences that are in many ways better than what happens in a lot of classrooms. Recent books by James Gee, Clark Aldrich and Steve Johnson provide good overviews of these findings.

Beyond an intellectual rationale, there’s the urgent recognition among many librarians that we need to capture the younger audience for libraries by means that they find rewarding. Using gaming experiences as an entrée to the larger library environment, the thought goes, we achieve an “affective orientation” that may draw these new constituencies deeper into our range of resources and services over time.

Early leaders in library gaming were largely in the public library arena, as a quick look at the "Gaming in Libraries" wiki reveals. But academics have not been on the sidelines very long. In the past couple of years, Georgia Institute of Technology (pictured at left) and Wake Forest University have blazed the trail of full-scale gaming events in their libraries.

A description of their programs was presented at the July 2007 American Library Association Symposium on Gaming in Chicago. In fact, we dispatched one of our Villanova librarians to this event because we felt it required our close attention.

Beyond conference presentations, several recent publications provide more systematic conceptual views of the library gaming phenomenon. The first of these is “shifted librarian” Jenny Levine’s Library Technology Report entitled “Gaming & Libraries: Intersection of Services.” There’s also Scott Nicholson’s white paper on “The Role of Gaming in Libraries: Taking the Pulse.”

Such a spate of publications would indicate that we are in the growth cycle of an activity that may soon be part of the mainstream library mission. In absolute terms, libraries that sponsor formal gaming activities are still early adopters, but the adoption cycle moves fast these days. By next year libraries that haven’t figured out where gaming fits into their environments may be laggards.

Yes, we will be kicking off a video gaming series in Falvey later this academic year. There will be announcements when the programs are scheduled and ready to go. Stay tuned for that. All will be welcome. And it will be fun!


The version of Huizinga’s text quoted here comes from the 1997 Routledge reprint of the original English translation, published by Beacon Press in 1955. Access to the reprint edition was provided through Google Books via a search for Homo Ludens