Show Me the Awesome: Immersive play in the 21st century library

Show Me the Awesome Banner by John LeMasney at
Banner by John LeMasney at

Hello! Some of you visiting today will be regular readers of this blog; others may be here as part of Show Me the Awesome: 30 Days of Self-Promotion for libraries and librarians, a great project to help librarians around the world to celebrate their work.

So if you don’t know me, this is the Big Secret: I’m not actually a librarian myself, but currently an adviser to Auckland Libraries, the largest public library system in Australasia. (My wayward career is best described on my ‘About Me’ page). I make up fun stuff for people to do in public spaces, and so today I’m writing about immersive play in libraries. By ‘immersive play’ I mean activities which physically draw your library patrons into the world of a book, artwork, or other piece of media – whether through craft, gaming, roleplay, or content creation.

The big revelation for me came when running a workshop to decide the future of Auckland’s collections management policy – not, frankly, the sexiest task in a public library service, but most rewarding in the long run. Not just because we had a cathartic Nerf gun shoot out as part of the activity, but because I discovered the UN’s Missions of the Public Library.

(I go on a lot about this document, but it’s something really worth hammering home).

The mission statement doesn’t even use the word “books”. It talks about reading, sure – but this is not a manifesto for shelves. Instead, the focus is on activities like stimulating imagination and creativity, providing access to cultural expressions of all performing arts, supporting the oral tradition, and providing opportunities for personal creative development.

That’s an especially big deal in New Zealand, where a lot of the discussion about future branding of libraries revolves around their historic association with books. Wherever you are in the world, that “libraries = books” equation comes up a lot, especially when libraries’ enemies want to imply that they are outdated and can be supplanted by digital means, as happened in the Huffington Post last week.

So, how do we bring those missions of creativity, play, independent learning, and performance to life while remaining true to libraries’ heritage of literacy and reading? Let’s see if we can do it in six bullet points…

  • Steal an idea
  • Tell a story
  • Provide a hands on activity
  • Provide a rich language activity
  • Share participants’ work!
  • Always make them join, always make them borrow

Steal an idea

Find some piece of culture which will capture people’s attention. This could be high culture or low – an opera, a video game, a book, a song, or a movie. Pop culture is particularly effective for engaging children and young people, as Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield explained in her piece on Teletubbies activities in preschools.

Tell a story

Give some context to your activities by creating a wider narrative for your workshop. This might mean turning a teen workshop into a real-life zombie siege, or running the equivalent of Secret Cinema for your adult patrons in the evenings. The message I get from the UN mission statement is that helping participants to imaginatively enter the world of a story is as vital a part of what librarians do as keeping things on shelves.

Provide a hands on activity

Remember art and craft lessons at school? Often, as you worked, teachers would give you time for your mind to wander, or for you to chat with your friends as you carefully worked to create an object or artwork. In New South Wales, libraries I worked with using these six bullet points devised their own “Paint Like Michelangelo” sessions for kids – inspiring and unusual art lessons with a unique library flavour.

Whatever your age, a hands-on activity can encourage participants to act independently and confidently within the group. (I liked it when Auckland kids got to make their own real-life Angry Birds game. and I’m really looking forward to library users of all ages creating their own online adventure games, like Auckland’s own City of Souls). As long as your hands-on activity ties in to a wider literacy objective, this can only be a good thing for the library.

Students at Parkes smash fruit as they become real-life fruit ninjas!
Hands-on storytelling workshop blending nutrition and adventure as kids in Parkes, New South Wales, become fruit-bashing ninjas…

Provide a rich language activity

The need for a literacy element leads us to rich language activities. If you’re working with kids, you might get them to write a story, or describe an object that they’ve used in the hands-on session…it’s got to be more than just “reading them a story before you do the craft activity” though! Don’t forget that speaking and listening are rich language activities too – everything from debates and discussions to cabaret, songwriting, stand-up comedy and board games.

Share participants’ work!

Always give participants the chance to take pride in their work and share it with their friends and peers. This could mean anything from show-and-tell time at the end of a kids’ workshop to a full gallery display within your library.

Always make them join, always make them borrow

How daring are you in your pursuit of new users? In some of the libraries where I’ve run programmes, no child leaves a workshop without signing up for a library card and taking out at least two books! If a scavenger hunt is run in the library, for example, getting a card and using the self-check machine to withdraw a book might be two of the challenges.

This might not guarantee repeat business, but as long as it’s done with a sense of humour, such an attitude can help ensure that your programme participants become committed library users.

At the end of the day, quantitative performance measures are not the be-all and end-all of judging library success. The quality of interactions, from tracking down some obscure branch of a patron’s family tree to helping a child to discover their passion, is also vital.

However, until we win that battle and get organisations worldwide to measure libraries’ performance through saner, more qualitative systems, try something like “Always make them join, always make them borrow.”

The six steps above can generate activities for all ages and sectors of the community.  They acknowledge the traditional association of libraries with literacy, but also take us into the 21st century – without necessarily spending lots of cash on digital technology.

If you can run this kind of event in your library, and really press home the message that the basic parameters of what a library is don’t even mention the word ‘book’, we can begin to help the media and the wider populace to celebrate the awesomeness that is the public library – that generous, radical space which your community funds so that everyone, rich or poor, young or old, has free access to the world of human knowledge and culture.

10 thoughts on “Show Me the Awesome: Immersive play in the 21st century library

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