Getting Started with Games in the Library

Interested in adding games to your library (or school library)? In this article, Toby Greenwalt shows you how.


Getting Started with Games in the Library
by Toby Greenwalt

Libraries are constantly on the lookout for new ways to attract patrons and counteract the stereotype that they exist as mere repositories for books. Offering a game collection can go a long way to attracting new users, fostering stronger social skills, and creating potential new “hooks” into other classroom activities. As students are drawn in by your game offerings, they’re more likely to try out other parts of your collection. They might even check out a book or two!

Here are some tips for encouraging gamers in your library, based on what we’ve learned at Skokie Public Library.

Aim for slow growth

There are thousands of choices out there, and an equal number of criteria you’ll want to consider as you evaluate potential titles for your collection. Age and grade levels are important, particularly for younger students. Scrabble probably isn’t appropriate for first-graders, though there are many other titles built around spelling and phonics for this age level. You’ll also want to consider how much time a typical game session goes, and make sure what you offer can be played during a normal library visit. Games with more action may be popular with your students, but they have to be weighed against the number of unique parts and the potential for noise. All of this can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.

Don’t think you have to launch with a diverse, full-featured collection right away. Start with a few tried-and-true games, such as Candy Land, Mancala, or Bananagrams, and build your collection further as interest grows.As your students express an interest in the collection, you can talk to them, and discover other games for potential inclusion. As you develop the game list further, you’ll find new titles and identify other resources (such as this very newsletter) that you can turn to for collection development.

Give your users some measure of responsibility

One of the biggest issues you’ll face with any game collection is how to keep track of all the pieces. With such a volume of small, unique, and easily lost parts, all it takes is a dropped box or careless student to take a game out of commission. At our library, we’ve separated the pieces from the game boards, keeping all the small parts in labeled zip-lock bags behind the desk. We keep the boxes for all the games out in the open, and children can take a look at the boards and game rules before they ask a librarian for the pieces.

Talking to an adult at the desk is often all it takes to ensure the safe return of all game parts. The mix of boards being out in the open and parts kept safe helps to remind our patrons that the collection is for everyone, and requires a shared sense of responsibility. If you’d prefer an added level of security, you can set up a check-out system, by asking for a student IDs or using a signup sheet. Keeping the game boards out in the open makes it easier for children to discover titles they may not be familiar with, and helps reduce the strain on that precious behind-the-desk storage space. If you’re still concerned, look for self-contained titles like Boggle, or something like Connect Four, whose pieces can be easily replaced from a standard checker set.

Don’t underestimate the classics.

My library has several oversized chessboards scattered throughout the youth and adult areas of the library, and they are almost under constant use. (We keep checkers in the youth area for some of our younger visitors.) Parents will teach their children how to play, friends will continue long-standing rivalries with one another, and people with no prior relation to one another will start pickup games on the spot.

This helps to reinforce the library as a social space, and provides added incentives for people to come back to your space beyond assigned class periods. In addition to making great conversation pieces for your space, using oversized boards and pieces (readily available on Amazon or prominent toy/game stores) can help prevent parts from being lost.

Encourage gaming as a social activity.

Our library typically holds about 6 large-scale “Untuned Unplugged” open gaming events a year. This has brought anywhere from 30 to 200 children and families together to sample all of our games in a fun social environment.

Setting up like this doesn’t take a lot of preparation. All you need are a sufficient number of tables for your space, and a variety of games that can be set out for your visitors to try out. Depending on the duration and number of people expected at the event, we have used 1 to 3 chaperones to float between tables, explain rules, and make sure everyone behaves properly. The costs for setting this up are minimal, and holding regular open gaming events can give your patrons plenty to look forward to as they visit your space.

Moving forward.

Of course, this is only one way to facilitate gaming in your classroom or library. Perhaps you’d like to hold more structured library time around 1 or 2 specific games. Maybe you’re looking to make games a part of your circulating collection. You may even wish to develop a program on game design, perhaps in concert with the ongoing curriculum. (I’ve always found maps to be natural starting points for potential game boards.) The opportunities are out there. All you need to take things further is a little creativity and a few interested students.

[All photos courtesy of Ruth Sinker for Skokie Public Library.]

Toby Greenwalt is the Virtual Services Coordinator for Skokie (IL) Public Library, where he develops new programs and services designed to engage a growing online community. He blogs occasionally at and tweets all too often as @theanalogdivide.

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