Et in Arcadia Ego

Steven Cohen links to this piece by Dave Gibson, “Our Public Libraries Are Being Turned Into Video Game Arcades,” in which Gibson laments the increase of video games and movies in public libraries. He sees it as part of the dumbing down of American youth. “It is little wonder that our nation’s literacy rate continues to decline,” he says.

I’m not going to argue specifically about what Gibson says (Jenny Levine does that better than I could in the comments on Steven’s blog), but I will argue about that sentiment in general.

Is the public library “brand” books? Most people I know seem to think it is, and I would agree it’s so. But libraries in general have never been solely about books, and if public libraries were ever about just books, it was certainly long before I was born.

Even if public libraries have been about books more than other forms of media, so what? I know, I know, librarians are supposed to be the champions of the written word, defenders of literacy. Well, I’m not. I mean, I love books, sure, but I love movies and TV shows and theater and music and games at least as much. And I think the idea of libraries being primarily about books–and books being primarily about education and intelligence–is wrong to the point of being dangerous.

For one thing, we need to talk about what’s in the books. Would it be better for the patrons of public libraries to read any books rather than watch movies or play video games? Would it be better for them to read romance novels? Would it be better for them to read Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly? What about comics? Or are libraries only supposed to keep the “classics,” and if so, who decides what the classics are? Is it better for a teen to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even if the book has no personal relevance to them?

We also have to take into account this: reading text is not inherently better than watching a movie or playing a video game. There’s no conclusive proof that it is. There is evidence that different people learn and are engaged by different methods. Some people are more engaged, more provoked to thought, by visual and/or active media, like watching movies or playing video games.

People who read books less than they watch movies or TV, play games or sports, hike through woods, play music, garden, knit, or bake are not necessarily stupid or illiterate. People who read lots of books are not necessarily smart or wise. Let’s get rid of that notion right now.

Libraries can’t be all things to all people. It’s probably not feasible for a public library to also be a gym, a dance studio, and a carpentry workshop. But if public libraries broaden what they offer their patrons, turning the library into a video arcade…well, I think that’s awfully smart.


8 thoughts on “Et in Arcadia Ego

  1. Pingback: Movies and Film Blog » Et in Arcadia Ego

  2. Nice post Goblin.
    My new favorite saying is this: “In order to get noses in the books, you need to get bodies in the building.”

    Showing movies and having gaming events is just another way of doing what we as librarians have always done, and that is inform people about how cool the library is.

  3. Right on, Royce. But even if patrons come in and never stick their nose in a book, I think we’re doing good work. Reading is not inherently good. Watching movies and playing games is not inherently bad.

  4. Professionally we often discuss the librarian stereotype, but I believe we need to talk more directly about the library stereotype… Books; and how to change perceptions about the library being a warehouse. I can take being thought of as stuffy, or cool, but the perception of the library itself is what really matters. I love books, but like you wrote, books are only a piece of a very rich and growing contemporary puzzle. Sure, we discuss how to implement new technologies, and even about marketing our services, but I think that a more direct method might work better to educate many people:

    Check Out A World Of Digital Information & Entertainment @ Your Library!

    We’re at a professional crossroards for which there is truly only one direction to travel… Technology. The other road forms a closed circuit, yet people cling to antiquated ideas of how things should be, based on simpler times. The people traveling this road steadily advance, going nowhere.

    We have a lot of work to do. About half the patrons at my Library cling to the idea of a quiet, bookish space, while the other half crave social interaction, and technology. The lines don’t seem to be age-based either. Recently, I had an outraged young women ask me to silence some children saying, “This is supposed to be a library!” I also had an interaction with an elderly man who clearly hadn’t been in a library in decades.

    The man looked totally shell shocked! He said, “You have computers!?” I commented that we’ve had computers for years, and that we also lend DVDs, CD, and audiobooks (welcome to the future). He was astonished. He shook his head, not in disgust but in amazement. As he turned to leave he hesitated for a moment, turned back at me and asked, “You’re not going to get rid of ALL the books are you?” I laughed, and assured him that we weren’t going to get rid of all the books. With a dull gleam in his eye he nodded, then turned and walked away.

    As the technology guy, I felt very proud as I described everything We had to offer. I was extremely happy to educate him about it (without even getting into the WiFi, or the MP3s). It was a very satisfying moment. I really hope he comes back to take advantage of all We offer.

    … Great post Josh!!

  5. Although I’m not a luddite, and I believe technology (DVDs, CDs, video games etc.) have their place in libraries, I am concerned with the increasingly prevalent mentality that sees video games and the moving image as on par with reading as a means of learning. I think there is a correlation between time spent reading and an overall ability to think clearly and articulate one’s ideas in an effective way. Certainly it is true that different people learn differently, and many may learn quicker through video games than books – but is it clear that they can analyze and articulate what they’ve learned as effectively as those who’ve spent more time in books?

    I’m suspicious that librarians as a profession are beginning to privilege new technologies more in an effort to remain relevant, as general readership declines, than to accomodate different modalities in learning. To me this is dangerous.

  6. We also have to take into account this: reading text is not inherently better than watching a movie or playing a video game.

    While I agree with your basic premise, Josh, I think you push the argument a bit too far there. Literacy is the most important skill for a child to have to succeed in school. Literacy is basically required to succeed in society. Social intelligence may end up being a greater determinant of career success than school smarts, but literacy is still primary. Kids need more exposure to books and reading than these other things. Ideally they will have a wide variety of interests and activities, but books cannot be left out of the equation. They are not optional, everything else is. And the best way to get better at reading is to practice reading. Even Captain Underpants or trashy romances. Reading is key.

    And I agree with Woeful that about half the patrons I see still expect the library to be the quiet book place and the other half are into the technology and making social connections. It creates a lot of tension, both in the atmosphere and in our attempts to please everyone.

  7. Yeah, I may be taking the argument a little too far. And you’re right, literacy is important in school. (Although I’ve seen kids who were plenty smart but had difficulty with literacy get thrown aside and essentially abandoned by schools.) I should make it clear: I’m not saying reading should get thrown under the bus, but I do think movies, games, etc should be brought onto the bus to ride alongside reading.

    Also, what’s in danger of being ignored is that video games, card games, board games, role-playing games all require literacy at some level.

  8. Pingback: the goblin in the library › World in Motion

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