At Libraries Across America, It's Game On In the 1800s, British libraries used gaming rooms to lure patrons away from pubs. Now, across the country, libraries are using video games to attract millennials — and the goal isn't always educational.

At Libraries Across America, It's Game On

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Baseball diamonds are not the only places for playing games. Libraries are, too. Sure, you could study and research there, but in the 1800s, British libraries also had gaming rooms as a way to lure patrons away from pubs.

For our series on Public Libraries in America, NPR's Sami Yenigun reports that today, libraries are using video games to bring in young people.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: There's a battle going down - at the public library.


YENIGUN: It's a one-point game in the fourth quarter, only seconds left on the game clock. Huddled around a big screen in this small room at the Sollers Point Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library system, 10 or so teenagers are cheering on their joystick-wielding buddies. The ball is snapped, the kick is up...


UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Ah, he got it. Yes. Yes.

YENIGUN: No good. The kick is wide right, the crowd goes wild, trash talk is flying.

Every Wednesday, battles like this one boil over. The weekly Xbox program for teens starts at 3:30 and ends at five.

LIZ SLACK: Or if they're being really good and they want to stay longer and the next shift can take over, they can stay until about 5:30.

YENIGUN: That's Liz Slack, librarian at the Sollers Point Branch. Today, the kids get to stay until 5:30. Video game programs like this one are in public libraries around the country. According to a study published in Library Journal last year, about 15 percent of libraries around the U.S. currently lend games for library cardholders to take home. But other research shows that gaming in the library is far more common, and teenagers game the most.

Sandy Farmer is the manager of Central Youth Services for the Houston Public Library where there are four Wii U's, four Xboxes, several Nintendo DSIs, some iPads, seven PlayStations and a few big screen TVs.

SANDY FARMER: It's a primary part of our service that we offer. And it results in a 15 to 20 percent increase in the circulation of books.

YENIGUN: More video games in the library means more checking out of books.

FARMER: The kids and the teens spend more time here. Families come. Their parents have things to do on the computers because a lot of our families don't have computer access at home, and Internet access at home. So, the kids have something to do. And while they're here they find out - uh - there's Superman. I can read Superman.

YENIGUN: For some kids, reading about Superman in a video game can be more fruitful than reading about him in a book. Constance Steinkuehler is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin who just finished a study called Game-based Learning. It looks at children and teenagers who don't like school but love games.

CONSTANCE STEINKUEHLER: In some cases, you had struggling readers read text that was up to eight grades above their diagnosed reading level and reading it with perfect comprehension, all right? Because they were willing and able to bootstrap and fix their comprehension problems as they went through it.

YENIGUN: Steinkuehler says the reason for this is simple.

STEINKUEHLER: When you care, you actually persist in the face of challenges.

YENIGUN: And while many have long looked at video games as a medium with little to no educational value, Steinkuehler says that even as far back as 10 or 15 years ago libraries saw games differently.

STEINKUEHLER: Because they're so attuned to individuals' information-seeking patterns across diverse resources and how complex that can be, and because they're working with populations that are there out of interest or need, they're kind of naturally sort of understood the medium in a very interesting way.

YENIGUN: At the New York Public Library system, the Arcade Program takes a deeper look into the medium. Kevin Winkler is director of Library Sites and Services. He describes something that's sounds a lot like a book club.

KEVIN WINKLER: Gamers can come in, they can play games and they can also talk about them and engage in a kind of analytical discussion about them. Talk about the strategic methods for winning or concluding the games, and really sharing ideas and thoughts about how the games work, their structure and so forth.

YENIGUN: But not every gaming program is educational, Winkler points to the Wii Fitness for Adults as an example. And not every game asks gamers to read big blocks of text, which is OK with Keri Adams, librarian at the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack, New Jersey. She welcomes all kinds of games, as long as they aren't rated M for Mature audiences.

KERI ADAMS: They're fun, and I think there's a value to kids coming to the library and having fun, and having kind of a place where they can come and hang out with each other. There aren't a lot of safe places for teenagers can go, so I think it's important to give them that, even if it isn't, you know, the most educational experience.

YENIGUN: Sandy Farmer, of the Houston Public Library, agrees.

FARMER: I have a room full of teenage boys that are happy and the library is the coolest place they know. And video games are a part of that.

YENIGUN: With a whole new generation of video game consoles on the horizon, librarians around the country are getting ready for a gaming upgrade.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News.


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