Minot Public Library librarian Pam Carswell spends a lot of time thinking about the role that public libraries play in the lives of children and teenagers. When we asked her about the impact of North Dakota's oil boom on the library, she said, "Minot used to be kind of insular; the kids were generally born here. Now, we're getting a lot of kids who have moved here from somewhere else. And the library is sometimes the first place where they make a friend."
As teen services librarian, Pam works hard to make the library a place where teenagers are comfortable making friends. In the process, it's also become a place where young people spend their time reading, learning, and creating.
"I've Seen Kids Who Had Refused to Pick Up a Book Reading Books!"
Like an increasing number of libraries around the U.S., Minot Public Library has a collection of video games, both in circulation and for playing in the library. Pam says that the gaming program started five years ago with a donation of $1,000 from the local Friends of the Library organization.
Since then, the collection has steadily grown. The library now owns two Xbox 360s, a Nintendo Wii, a Wii U, and two iPad Air 2s stocked with games and art and design software.
Of the 110 games in circulation, Pam says that about a fifth of them were donated, either by patrons or by local games store Gorilla Games. She says the library has spent a total of about $1,500 on the games in circulation.
Are video games out of place in a library collection? Not in Pam's opinion. She's seen how games make the library a destination for kids, and how the library environment stimulates their curiosity:
"A lot of kids come in because they heard I had video games. And they said, 'Oh, this isn't so bad. And oh, look, they've got Game Informer [a popular video game magazine], so I can read about video games.' And then maybe a few months later, they see the manga section and they think, 'Well, I could read a book. It's got pictures. I like pictures.' I've seen kids who had refused to pick up a book reading books!"
Pam says that there's been almost no criticism of the games program, or concerns about games with mature content. She tries to keep a good mix of popular games for players of all ages: "I get some M games; I get some Teen games; I get some E games. Our library policy is that parents are responsible for what their children check out. So if the parent is upset about what their kid checked out, they can return it right back. It's their prerogative."
And in fact, Pam considers carrying games with more mature themes an important service for the library to provide to families. It gives parents an opportunity to understand and ask questions about what their kids are playing, and what they're asking for: "These games cost upwards of $50. That's a big birthday or Christmas gift. If a kid wants, say, Grand Theft Auto V [a controversial game about the world of organized crime], and Mom says, 'I don't know about this,' then they can come in, check it out from me, and try it out in their own home. And then they can return it and have a much more educated idea of what is appropriate for their family.
"I would have some concerns about a young kid playing Halo 3 [a violent, futuristic military simulator] in a basement all by himself with the windows blacked out — I think we're all a little concerned about that. However, for a young person thinking about a career in the military — maybe 16 or 17 — playing Halo might be something that they need to do in order to think about their career options."
Building Community Through Gaming
Twice a month, Minot Public Library sets aside a few hours for teenagers to get together and play video games — once after school, and once on Saturdays. "The one on Saturday started when I had some farm kids tell me, 'Pam, I'd love to come to gaming — I don't have that stuff at home — but I can't make it here after school. I live 30 miles away.'" Pam says that parents welcomed the Saturday gaming sessions too:
"[The kids] can get dropped off here at the library and come game while their parents are in town shopping. I've heard from parents that they really like not having to take teenagers shopping."
A big part of what makes the gaming sessions fun is that they don't feel regimented. "I only do sign-ups when I absolutely must," Pam says, "like for field trips or crafts." When it comes to gaming, she says, it's better to let kids take turns than to force arbitrary time limits on them. She also makes sure that there are plenty of other activities available — board games, Magic: The Gathering, iPad games — so that kids are never just sitting around waiting to play.
According to Pam, the gaming days at the library are a big part of the local teenagers' social lives. "For some hardcore gamers, this is their social hour. This is their life. A lot of the kids exchange phone numbers. It's creating friendships among kids that might not have met otherwise."
It also opens doors for kids who might not easily be able to participate in other after-school activities. "You don't have to be sporty, you don't have to be musical, and you don't even have to be good at video games," Pam says. "You just come and have fun." The gaming sessions are popular among teenagers with mental or physical disabilities, who enjoy playing in an environment that doesn't draw attention to their disadvantages. Pam even has a funny way of dealing with aides and caseworkers, to keep from drawing too much attention to them: "We refer to all adults […] as the 'paparazzi' because they follow our teens, the rock stars, around."
Pam also looks for ways to use the gaming program to instill in kids the importance of volunteering. For example, the library hosts a gaming tournament twice a year in cooperation with Gorilla Games. This year, the library also partnered with a local animal shelter.
"We told the kids, 'If you volunteer at the animal shelter, that will be good for 10 points an hour in the gaming tournament. So if you go work there for three hours, you'll have 30 points. You can absolutely bomb at Mario Kart 8, but you could still win the gift card!'"
DIY at the Library
This year, Pam led MPL's project to create a MakerSpace. Like the gaming program, the MakerSpace is designed to change the role of the library in teenagers' lives: "The goal of the MakerSpace is to take people in our community from being digital consumers to being digital producers. Whatever you enjoy in the digital world, we want you to be able to produce it yourself."
The MakerSpace was funded by a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation. "We told [the foundation], 'We have people in our community who don't have access to digital tools, and we want to put those tools in their hands. We want to improve our young people's digital skills. In pretty much every job today, you're going to need to know how to run a computer.'"
The MakerSpace is aimed at teenagers, but open to everyone. MakerSpace computers are loaded with art and design software that anyone can use during library hours. There are also digital video cameras, both for using in the library and for check-out.
|MPL MakerSpace's Software Collection|
|Adobe Creative Cloud: Industry standard design and multimedia tools.|
|Scrivener: Writing, research, and organizational tool for writers.|
|Comic Life: Writing, layout, and design tool for creating comics.|
|ArtRage: Drawing and painting app.|
|GameSalad: Drag-and-drop video game design tool.|
|Minecraft: Open world-building and design game.|
But of course, stocking the space with the right software and hardware won't do very much good if there's no one around with the skills to teach patrons how to use them. Pam keeps a busy schedule of workshops where she teaches skills like movie editing, animation, print design, and even Minecraft: "I take two weeks, I learn an app, and then I teach it to the teenagers."
She's also quick to point out how much content there is online for learning digital skills. She writes fact sheets for each app with links to tutorials and how-tos. She also curates a YouTube playlist of introductions to each tool on the MakerSpace computers.
How much does it cost to start a MakerSpace like MPL's? Not as much as you might think. The Otto Bremer Foundation grant came to $34,000 and the local Friends of the Library gave an additional $4,000 for the space, but most of that $38,000 went to staff hours. MPL bought four new computers — two Macs and two running Windows — and although some of the software on her list is expensive, she points out that there are free or inexpensive alternatives to many of the applications on it.
Pam rolls her eyes at some of the other amenities that similar spaces purchase: "I looked into MakerSpace furniture, and frankly I found it heavy and expensive, and I didn't think that it really provided that much. So we took older tables from the library, covered them with contact paper and colored duct tape, and it came out looking great. The kids like it and two years from now, if the contact paper's ripped, we'll do it again."
"The Kids Started Calling Me Library Mom"
In 2011, a major flood displaced thousands of Minot residents and destroyed a school. When Pam came on at MPL in 2012, many residents were still displaced, and the school had moved to a temporary location across the street from the library. Together, all of those factors meant that kids and teenagers were spending a lot more time at the library than usual.
Pam and a few other senior staff people took turns monitoring the kids after school. She spent a lot of time getting to know the kids and making sure that they had everything they needed. "The kids started calling me Library Mom," she says proudly. And she takes the unofficial role seriously: if a kid comes in in the winter without a hat or gloves, she raids the Lost and Found.
But the title also says something about how Pam approaches her role as a librarian. Whether it's stocking MPL's collection with kids' favorite games, encouraging them to volunteer at local nonprofits, or teaching them how to make their own movies and comics, Pam is committed to making the library a place where kids can learn, grow, and make friends.
Images and video: Minot Public Library
This story was written by Elliot Harmon, a writer and open web activist. He lives in San Francisco.