Every library faces the question of how to balance play and work? In a public library, there’s always the worry about noisy activities in the children’s department spilling over too much into the rest of the library. In a school library, the question becomes one of balance between students who wish to work and those who wish to play. When space and resources are limited, the librarian faces the challenge of creating a library culture that insures equity of access to users while at the same time making a place where all students feel ownership. This was the first major challenge that I faced as a school librarian and one that has taught me a lot about perception, interaction and school culture.
At the beginning of the year, the library was chaotic as middle schoolers took over computers to play Minecraft. is a popular sandbox game where players can create, explore and play together. They would move chairs to cluster around and watch each other play as well as narrating their choices out loud. If a student needed a computer to work, the group of gamers would complain and bargain amongst themselves for who was to get off. My first solution was to ban Minecraft during the school day. That eliminated a few problems but students would find other games and I had to be constantly alert for what was going on. I discovered that the upper school students were annoyed at the middle school students because for the past couple of years, all gaming had been banned in the library, the change of that rule to ban only one game created friction. The older students felt it was unfair that the younger students were given more privileges than they had had themselves. There was also the fact that the middle schoolers didn’t have as many academic responsibilities and weren’t always as good at regulating their volume level. I found that the best solution was to talk with the middle school students about how they were playing and try to discuss the idea of time and a place for playing. Creating and posting new rules that I enforced began this conversation, which is still going on as new games are discovered and the year draws towards an end. In the new rules which have been enforced since the start of second semester in January, there are no multiplayer games allowed on the school computers during the school day, no Minecraft during the day and when academic work needs to be done, then a gamer must give up their computer.
A major and unexpected roadblock around these conversations came from some adults in the school community who perceived gaming in black and white terms as well as the use of school resources for any sort of leisure activity. I believe this is a generational issue which needs to be met honestly on all sides, because as lives are becoming more digitally entwined, it’s harder to say don’t do this or that. Bringing games into the library or the classroom might not be the right choice for every program but it is important to understand why the students are playing the ones they do, and how some games might be compatible with academic studies. Many times the behaviors that are being lamented as lost due to technology are just being reproduced in new ways. In Minecraft, I’ve seen students work together, discuss strategy, be silly and choose to spend their time after school with their friends. Though they’re playing a game online, they are choosing to play it in an environment where they are all sitting next to each other.
Another challenge of defining appropriate behavior for a school library is the difficulty of having a library that’s shared by middle and high school students because the norms for appropriate behavior change through the years. All students must be safe and comfortable in the library because it’s their space to work and relax. The school where I am librarian doesn’t have a cafeteria so students find other places to hang out and the library is a popular one. The challenge I’ve faced is balancing how to support what kids are enjoying, as well as give them responsibility for choosing what happens in their space and yet make certain that they aren’t learning bad lessons from their play. As a new librarian, I’m still working on how to best achieve this balance as it requires trust and communication among the school community so that students understand my expectations of them and the rest of the school understands why the students are given these expectations. The best tools I’ve found are observing and listening to the students. For example, they will comment on a game that seems overly distracting in terms of how its played in terms of noise level or subject matter, which is usually a sign that it doesn’t belong in the library.
One of the major challenges of this particular library situation is the limited number of computers that are easily accessible to students. In the library, there are ten computers, elsewhere in the school are two computer labs and a separate one for yearbook and journalism. However to enter the other labs, students must have a teacher’s assistance. That means that they’re not ideal for students who wish simply to spend a free period relaxing. Academic work is always a priority and that means that when students are playing games if another student needs access to work, then the gamer has to get off. It took some time for students to understand that the quicker they got off, the sooner that other students would be more accepting of their playing. Once gamers showed themselves trustworthy and understanding that while the computers were available, their primary function was always for work, this behavior was picked up by other students who were using computers for more leisure activities such as watching videos or checking their social networking sites. In this way the gamers who were initially defined as a problem group took on a leadership role in the library.