Considering Games in Libraries and Such — The New Normal: Opportunity or the Toll of Doom?

by | May 17, 2021 | 0 comments


AND How Game Thinking Can Keep the Robots at Bay — and Sharks

Column Editor:  Jared Alexander Seay  (Media & Services Coordinator, Addlestone Library, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC  29424;  Phone: 843-953-1428)

Against the Grain Vol. 33 No. 1

Though the public attitude to all things “public” will be changed forever, eventually this pandemic thing — or at least the associated lockdown — will be over.  We will be back to “normal” interaction in public spaces or whatever the “new normal” means in the post-pandemic world.  At least I think so … mostly.  But, what does this portend?  (Que ominous foreshadowing music here).

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed1 Christopher Cox, dean of libraries at Clemson University, talked about “the significant ways academic libraries will shift” — or must shift — in the “new normal.”  Cox talks specifically about collections, services, spaces and operations and how the pandemic has changed how they are perceived by patrons and administration.  Print collections, for example, have become even more problematic due to access issues, and libraries must more intensely look into “e-everything” in the form of more online access to titles, digitization of current collections and more intense concentration on copyright and fair use challenges.  Service models must be examined to more fully integrate self-service, virtual alternatives, artificial intelligence and embedded librarians as well as leaning further into online teaching, online research, and the library website as the “virtual front door.”  The physical library space itself must be further adapted to accommodate both social distancing and collaborative study as well as dynamic group interaction and be flexible enough to easily shift from one to the other at a moment’s notice.  Cox talks optimistically, as one would expect and hope from a dean of libraries, of both the challenges and the opportunities this situation has afforded the library for more interactive engagement with faculty and students on campus.  

However, I was drawn to one particular comment on the article (in the comments section of course) which resounded with a particular poignant, pessimistic assessment of the “new normal.”  This commentator noted that the move online and the resulting application of more technology (i.e. self-service and less human contact) in library services will only accelerate the current integration of Libraries under IT departments and downgrading of libraries from traditional research support services.  The concerned commenter said that a librarian might soon “be a repurposed IT worker being passed off as a librarian” and further noted that, “some universities, such as mine, have their libraries now reporting to IT whose view of what libraries actually do is severely limited.  The CIO at my institution thinks that librarians could easily be replaced by automation — a feeling supported by the consistent reduction in force that has been occurring since IT took over.  They also eliminated tenure for the librarians and made the move to have them report to generic IT project managers many of whom have no comparable educational background or experience.”  

But, assimilation into the IT Borg collective is only the beginning of the end.  For our commentator further lamented that in their library, “the spaces that Libraries occupy are always being examined for ‘actual use’ in an attempt to re-purpose the space (usually to accommodate more administrators).  The commenter warned that the student’s insistence for study space and access to ‘actual’ resources and people is “the only thing that keeps the wolves at bay at least for the time being.”  

Though this beleaguered commentator does seem to have been scarred by IT thugs somewhere in a past departmental encounter (or is perhaps currently engaged in an epic departmental struggle with the dark forces of IT), the fear expressed here is rational, and this dystopia is a plausible, potential alternate universe to Cox’s vision of library opportunity.  Resource and personnel slashing is a very real thing.  And on my campus I have heard aplenty of the high degree to which some in the administration covet the “unused” or “rarely used” spaces in the library.  Of course, it is only natural on a campus that is constantly starved for space (academic or administrative) that those perceived “unused” spaces, wherever they are, would be coveted.  It seems then also a natural response for librarians to convincingly show that these spaces are indeed “actually” being effectively used, and it is this particular point I shall address. 

Other than increased attention to environments for student work and study and collaboration (including duel monitors for students to hook into with their own devices — because in the “new normal” students will apparently always bring their own devices), Cox does not provide any detail of how libraries can leverage — and subsequently retain — the vast spaces they currently control.  Of course, I do provide the answer.  And as this column would suggest, it involves games or at least game-like thinking.  Indulge me for a bit if you will.

Though Cox does not explicitly state it, I am sure he would agree that the library physical space must be utilized in tandem, mutual support with any application of the academic library service model utilizing technology and online presence.  In a traditional sense such spaces can and should be used to house the people (library instructors and/or students) and technology (screens/cameras for online/hybrid use).  More efficient and effective ways to make this happen should be found.  But, I am envisioning a more innovative concept that involves active library support of the institution for an increasingly pervasive pedagogy — game-based learning.  

Why not get the library involved in more interactive engagement with faculty and students on campus?  I have certainly reiterated ad nauseam the concept that gamification in general and game-based learning (GBL) in particular is increasingly being understood as a core pedagogy for a “potentially powerful learning environment” and “the “next generation of learning engagement.”2  In as much as the best learning is active and immersive, gaming (in the broadest sense of the term) falls into the whole milieu of active learning — also referred to as experiential learning or engaged learning or problem-based learning.3 

An academic library as a game center?  Well, not exactly … rather a campus hub of resources, expertise, and physical space for experiential and immersive learning.  Not only is this a direct way for the academic library to fully realize the opportunity for more direct, interactive engagement with faculty and students, but it becomes a direct method to solidify the library’s virtual and physical space relevance.  How is that for a win-win?  

How is that for a humble call to arms to all librarians who long to revolutionize the profession and invigorate their day-to-day interaction with students and faculty?  So, considering the environment fostered by the pandemic, academic libraries should lose no time in adapting this perspective as a significant part of the effort to adapt to the “new normal.”  I invite any librarian so inclined and with creative gumption to jump with me into this immersive lake with both feet.  For those who may not wish to plunge fully immerged all at once into potential shark infested waters, dipping one’s toes into the cool stream of the new normal may still invigorate you.  Besides, sharks are people, too, after all.  


1. Cox, Christopher.  “Changed, Changed Utterly.”  Inside Higher Ed, June 5, 2020.

2. Oblinger, Diana G.  “The Next Generation of Educational Engagement.”  Journal of Interactive Media in Education. Ubiquity Press, May 21, 2004.

3. Seay, Jared A.  “Active Learning Immersive Scenario Games in Teaching & Learning.”  Research Guides Addlestone Library.  College of Charleston.  Accessed February 27, 2021.


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