Three years ago, Eli Neiburger was just an IT guy at the Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan. It was no secret at work that Neiburger loves videogames - he has a Triforce tattooed on his arm - so when Erin Helmrich, a librarian who focuses on teens, wanted to bring gaming into the library, she turned to him for advice.
Less than a year and about $8,000 later, Neiburger and Helmrich had set up one of the first and largest gaming tournaments at any municipal library in the country. Kids came out of the woodwork to play Mario Kart: Double Dash and Super Smash Bros: Melee. Roughly a quarter of them had never been to a library before.
According to Neiburger, "One kid told us videogames are gateway drugs for libraries." Now he gives presentations and holds sample tournaments for librarians across the country. He's one of about a dozen crusaders who see videogames as a way of attracting kids, especially teenagers, to the library, and among them, Jenny Levine is considered the overlord.
A self-described "technology-training evangelist," Levine works on internet development for the American Library Association, but recently the bulk of her work has gone into gaming. In 2005, she organized the first gaming in libraries symposium.
"These days, it's a pretty easy sell to tell libraries they should have a blog, RSS or instant messaging," she said. "But you talk about gaming, and so many times there's just this immediate negative reaction." She spends a lot of time getting librarians to try Dance Dance Revolution.
Levine started thinking more about gaming in 2005, when she attended a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, on the educational and social values of games. The keynote speakers were Henry Jenkins and James Paul Gee, both college professors who are well-known for their academic work with games.
Levine said she was "blown away" by the topic of education in videogames. Her stepson Brent, who was 9 at the time, was slumping in school, and the speakers' ideas about games as educational tools resonated. "I did a blog post in which I talked about how I could see that Brent was not learning what he should be," she said. "To me, schools spend too much time teaching things like handwriting, and the kids are barely learning science and math."
Despite this revelation, the conference made no mention of libraries, and Levine couldn't understand why. "I decided that in the age of No Child Left Behind, there's just no way you can do this in the school without starting in the school library," she said. Since then, she's been reading about the subject, posting about it on her blog, The Shifted Librarian, and introducing gaming to her peers at conferences and workshops.
Modern librarians worry about appearing uncool in the eyes of teens - the stereotypical old lady in a knit cardigan, always shushing. Librarians fear if they can't connect with young adults and children now, they'll have a hard time getting taxpayer funding when those kids grow up. If getting their attention means sacrificing an emphasis on books in favor of a little fun and games, so be it.
"I've heard people say public libraries are here to foster lifelong learning," Eli Neiburger says, "but the fact is the mainstream audience ain't interested in learning."
Neiburger stresses that libraries should be places for recreation, too. Their size, resources and virtually unlimited membership mean they can do gaming kids can't do at home, like hold a Mario Kart tournament with eight TVs or broadcast the matches on cable access television. For that reason, Neiburger and others push harder for tournaments than for circulating games, a common practice with CDs and DVDs.
"That's one way to do it," Neiburger said, "but what I'm always telling people is it's extremely difficult to offer a videogame collection that doesn't look like crap next to what's offered at Blockbuster."
The tournament program in Ann Arbor is actually a gaming season that plays out over a few months, culminating in one final tournament. Prizes are given to the winners, and gamers who grow out of the teenage bracket have a chance to enter the Hall of Fame.