Libraries lure kids with PlayStations, Nintendo

Justin Lacey spends an afternoon playing Guitar Hero at the Cortelyou Road Library. Some people are outraged that kids are learning video game skills at a library.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

Forget Don Quixote, how about Donkey Kong?

The Brooklyn Public Library is luring kids to its branches with more than ink and paper these days by inviting tech-savy teens to play video games.

More than a third of the library’s 60 branches now host gaming programs for kids, even though experts say video games are a cause of the decline in reading and book culture.

But Library officials say just by getting kids through the doors, it’s winning a major battle.

“I don’t know if ‘Guitar Hero’ is going to get kids to read Dickens, but that’s not the purpose of it,” said Steven Lamonea, a librarian and supervisor at the Cortelyou branch. “It’s about maintaining a connection to the library.”

Evidently it’s working; the weekly “PlayStation Gaming Hour” is the Cortelyou library’s most popular weekly program for children, librarians said.

And the kids were loving it on a recent Wednesday afternoon, when nearly two dozen put their names on a list to play “Guitar Hero” and patiently waited their turn in a book-free area where they watched other kids get their game on.

Funding for many of the gaming programs comes thanks to a two-year New York State Family Literacy grant that hands over more than $80,000 to the library — $39,800 for the first year, and $45,000 for the second, expiring in June.

And it’s becoming par for the course for libraries in the modern age.

“It’s somewhat common, though I wouldn’t say every library has it,” said Jenny Levine, a strategist at the American Library Association who runs a blog about librarians in the digital age, called the Shifted Librarian. “Most libraries have had things like chess for decades, so in many ways this is just an extension of that. I don’t think that anybody would argue that text literacy is the end point [for libraries].”

Here in Brooklyn, the Cortelyou branch is joined by the Bushwick and Clarendon branches, which have Wii programs, in addition to branches in Coney Island [1901 Mermaid Ave. near W. 19th Street], Sunset Park [5108 Fourth Ave. at 51st Street], Bay Ridge [7223 Ridge Blvd. at 73rd Street], Mapleton [1702 60th St. at 17th Avenue], as well as the Central Library [10 Grand Army Pl. at Flatbush Avenue], which all have regular video game programs for kids.

“We’re hoping to get a Wii,” said Lamonea, whose branch only has a PlayStation right now. “Libraries are about both education and entertainment.”

Libraries aren’t the only bibliophiles trying to entice kids with video games.

Publishers have for years been trying to attract children — 97 percent of whom aged 12–17 play some type of electronic game, according to some studies — to the reading world by releasing video games that serve as extensions and supplements to books.

And there is a growing list of video games that have been turned into books.

But not everyone is entirely sold on the idea.

“I think libraries do have a quasi-educational purpose,” said Harold Augenbaum, the executive director of the National Book Association. “Books and video games are different narrative systems. Book learning has been around two or three thousand years, but with video games there’s still a ways to go to use them effectively for educational purposes.”

Library representatives argued the video game program is part of that mission to bring libraries up to speed in the modern age.

“Today’s teens are so connected to technology and it’s important that we offer programs that relate to them,” said Jason Carey, a spokesman for the Library. “These programs attract youth who might not otherwise not visit the library.”

The Library sticks mostly to sports games and others like Guitar Hero, avoiding more violent fare, according to Lamonea.

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at erosenberg@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

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