In the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark, “Havin’ fun isn’t hard, when you’ve got a library card!”
But how much fun can you really have with a library card? Turns out, more than I expected. Libraries across America are adding video games to their collections available for checkout. Gamers with an incessant appetite for new experiences or anyone looking to play video games for free should contact their local library to see if they have a collection.
Over the past few months, I’ve borrowed a number of Xbox One games from my local library, the Lawrence Public Library in Kansas. From the half-pipes of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to the mysterious caves of Stardew Valley, I was able to explore these digital worlds for free, for a limited amount of time. While this does not remove all barriers to entry, gamers who own a console and experience financial precarity might want to take advantage of the increased accessibility.
We spoke to collection development librarian Kevin Corcoran from the Lawrence Public Library to learn more about their video game collection and how to borrow these games. “Originally, it was just started as a collection targeted towards the teens, but it expanded from there,” he said. “The first games we started out with were Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.”
Browsing for available games on their website is a user-friendly experience. Patrons can search through digital catalogs for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. During our conversation, Corcoran mentioned that the library was planning on purchasing games for the next generation consoles: PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. (Games for the Wii U, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 are also available to borrow, but the library is not currently purchasing new titles for these previous generations.)
Anyone with a Lawrence Public Library card can borrow games for two weeks at a time, with the potential for renewal if another member of the community does not place a hold on the game. Corcoran suggested that holds lists sometimes rack up for games that “people aren’t fully committed to but really want to test out.” Patience is crucial if you want to test out certain titles before purchasing. “The biggest holds list that I’ve ever seen is for Luigi’s Mansion 3.”
“We pay attention to the holds very closely. Once every week, we’ll run holds reports to see what items have the most holds,” he said, talking about the collections department at Lawrence Public Library. “On things that are getting really popular, we get multiple copies of it as we see the holds rise. So seeing 25 people on a holds list might be daunting at first, but for a game like that we might get five or six copies.”
For an additional perspective on video games in public libraries, we also spoke with Greg Burlingame, director of library collections at Stark County District Library in Canton, Ohio. Their library was receiving feedback from patrons who were “wanting us to explore the game market,” he said. The video game collection at the Stark Library is smaller and primarily features PlayStation 4 and Xbox One games.
“It’s only been a couple of years. It was really a pilot project that we started. We had this branch which we had to close because of some structural issues, so we had to move to a storefront,” Burlingame said, “It was kind of an incubator for some ideas that we had been wanting to try.” Currently, video games, along with DVDs, can be checked out from a few different Redbox-style locations around the community.
“Back in my day, my brother and I were really excited about Pac-Man coming out for the 2600,” Burlingame said, referencing the Atari 2600 console, “We got [the game] for Easter or something. We put it in and were like, ‘Well, this doesn’t look anything like Pac-Man.’ The game is completely different. The controls were all wacky.” Checking out a video game from the library before purchasing helps mitigate the disappointment players might experience when an expensive game does not live up to expectations.
“Of course with 2020, it only set us back. At this point, we are probably going to be evaluating a little bit longer to see where we want to go,” he said. With many state and local budgets strained by the coronavirus, it could be difficult for public libraries to acquire the financial means for starting a robust video game collection from scratch. In addition, with game costs continuing to increase for the next generation of consoles, libraries that have existing collections may struggle to keep their offerings current.
Even if a library has the budget for these purchases, putting video games into circulation can be difficult. “We didn’t buy Switch games for the first year, because the library safeguard processing is really focused on disc formats,” Corcoran said. Nintendo’s small, SD-card sized games were a logistics challenge for the library's catalog, but Switch games were an immediate hit once introduced to circulation. “It seems like a lot of their titles instantly have holds lists on them.”
Burlingame said, “We’re still in the exploratory phase, but so far we’ve had good reactions from the gamers.” He referred to the Stark County District Library as “getting a feel for the market and how the collection might operate” and doing “a minimal investment right now.” While some libraries have adopted the vocabulary of markets and innovation, it is important to note that public libraries are not businesses. Using this style of language has the potential to ultimately obscure their underlying mission of providing services free of charge to the local community.
If you are a console gamer, this a great opportunity to search for hidden gems that are not currently at the forefront of the American zeitgeist. I played hours upon hours of Stardew Valley, a game that I borrowed on a whim from my library due to the cute cover art featuring a homestead with a chicken. “It helps to wait a little bit, because then you won’t be on a holds list,” Corcoran said. “We’ve started doing autorenewals at the library, so if you get into something that’s going to take 60 or 80 hours of your time, you can just plug in a little bit.”
In addition to improving accessibility, adding video games collections to libraries across the country helps preserve these important cultural touchstones so they can be accessed by future generations of historians and gamers. These public collections can supplement the important mission of groups like the Video Game History Foundation who are teaching video game history and working to preserve video game source codes.
I grew up checking out books from the library, exploring new worlds and experiencing diverse viewpoints in those pages; I am excited to continue this tradition with a new medium, video games. I hope that public libraries receive adequate funding so that our communities, and the generations that succeed us, can properly access these cultural goods.
Reach out to your local library for more information regarding collection availability, borrowing periods, and renewal policies.