My spiel from “Gaming the Archive” at SCMS 2016 in Atlanta

On Thursday, March 31, I was a panelist in a workshop at SCMS 2016 entitled”Gaming the Archive: The Challenges of Games Collections in Libraries, Archives, and Institutions?,” at the Society for Screen and Media Studies conference in Atlanta on Thursday, March 31, 2016. The panel included Chris Hanson from the SU English Department, Jennifer deWinter (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Ken S. McAllister(University of Arizona, Co-Director of the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive),and Judd Ruggill (Arizona State University, Co-Director of the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive).

We each gave a lil intro before the workshop; here’s mine:

Hi, I’m Patrick Williams, associate librarian at Syracuse U and subject specialist for English, Communication & Rhetorical Studies, Writing, and Linguistics. Two of those departments are responsible for a lot of the teaching, research, and interest in games on our campus, so I am the librarian to whom collection development in gaming studies falls. This is fortunate for me, because it’s something I’m excited about, but I am not an expert in games—and that may be fortunate for our campus because it means that my work in building our germinal gaming collection is by necessity very collaborative.


The library literature on gaming collections points out a few friction points around building sustainable, circulating gaming collections, and I’m sure that many in this room have encountered issues of this nature:

  • there can be a reticence in libraries to begin investing in gaming collections out of whole cloth
  • the costs associated with doing so can be seen as drawing away from building collections in “more serious” traditional forms
  • librarians may struggle to position these collections in alignment with the library’s mission and goals
  • the typical problems of discoverability, access, and outreach for getting new and perhaps unexpected collections into the hands of students and faculty.

Most contemporary academic libraries are both underresourced and overworked, and, hence, they can be conservative when dipping into new areas. Taking on any kind of new collection has implications that cascade across subject specialties, acquisitions, cataloging, and various service points. So these decisions are often slowed by the hundreds of thousands of cross-departmental meetings necessary to come to consensus on issues that affect the work of broad swaths of library staff.


Additionally, with new video games collections in particular, there is the chicken-and-egg problem of what to collect, how the choice of particular consoles constrains the titles one may collect. Add to this the variety of systems, their expense and upkeep, and the perception that the landscape of available titles is unwieldy, inscrutable, and incompatible with libraries’ vendor and budgetary arrangements.


Despite the fact that I may currently be struggling with some of these issues as we build our nascent collection, I am here to provide some ideas about how faculty and librarians may collaborate to address some of the perceptions that make building such collections difficult **that I hope will strengthen the arguments for doing so from both the library and faculty perspectives.


As Chris may have mentioned, one set of perhaps familiar challenges of our situation at Syracuse is that we began with a trio of needs involving gaming: a need for dedicated space, a need for hardware in the form of consoles, video screens, and furniture, and of course, the games themselves. Were this to be a burden falling only on the library, I would see it as almost insurmountable—budget and space-wise, tackling all of these issues simultaneously would make things instantly cost-prohibitive, the required decisions and planning so far above my pay grade I shudder to think what other pay grades there are.


Luckily, Syracuse is a large, siloed, and diverse institution that struggles with coordination across disciplinary and departmental walls. I’m sure we’re unique in that. I believe this has allowed Chris and I to identify some other people with common needs and simmering questions who, like us, were not able to address all of these issues simultaneously. What we’ve come up with are some mutually beneficial arrangements that have helped us to distribute the burdens of space, funding, and coordination among parties who have an interest in a successful and well-supported gaming culture on campus.


Chris mentioned the Digital Development Lab, which came out of conversations with our Campus IT department, who have a vested interest in reaching students with technology in all phases of campus life. The serendipitous thing I realized when we first met with them, is that they had available space and funding for hardware, but not the interest or expertise in building and maintaining collections that we have in the library (though they are interested in helping to fund such collections to ensure the spaces and hardware are used).


Furthermore, neither they, nor we at the library, had the expertise to make strategic decisions about which consoles and titles would make a suitable core collection to serve the research and teaching needs of our students and faculty. But of course, Chris and his graduate students have this expertise in bulk. So, long story short, the baby-strides we’ve made in the last year are the result of a deep and necessary collaboration among these three groups, and only hundreds of meetings. I feel we’re in a much better place than had any one of us gone it alone. And I am certain that each group is benefitting in some very satisfying ways.


What I hope to bring to the table today is an awareness of what library-related concerns around building new circulating gaming collections might be, and ways to address them that hopefully satisfy and benefit all of constituents. As many in this room are probably aware, people ask questions about games they don’t ask of other materials. Here are some answers to the questions that often come out of libraries.


Regarding aligning gaming collections to the mission of the library / university: if gaming is represented in any campus curriculum, it is the library’s responsibility to support it. To fail to do so is counter to any academic library’s mission. If, like in the case of Syracuse, there is an active faculty interest, and even a game studies minor on the books, there are your advocates and partners in planning for that support.


Regarding impact and value of these collections beyond those programs: Libraries are tasked with providing a variety of up-to-date materials for faculty and student use—and we see crossover among users’ disciplines and the collections they use all the time. It is not only historians who make use of our historical newspaper databases, for example. Games collections have similar additional potential audiences and also represent a fruitful tool for outreach and programming. They also engage multiple literacies, which libraries are on the hook to support.


Regarding the perception that the costs are too high: Libraries buy niche titles all the time. Academic monographs are ridiculously expensive. I spent $650 on a two-volume set of books last week. I regularly and gladly purchase DVDs from smaller distributors for upwards of $500 in support of single classes or departments. By comparison, games are cheap both in terms of cost-per-title, and, if properly represented, cost-per-use. I treat them as I treat books and DVDs, and draw from the same reporting funds to purchase them; we house them with our media collections. Consoles do represent a larger expense, but most libraries loan out laptops, video cameras, and other expensive technology with similar demands.


Regarding increased time and difficulty in ordering non-traditional materials: Again, as with films and small press, non-academic books, we already use Amazon and other vendors all the time. And though acquisitions departments can be reticent to purchase from second-hand markets, we often do so for out-of-print materials, and few have the pricing structures or quality control of something like Gamefly.


Regarding the perception that games aren’t the domain of academic libraries: check a few titles in worldcat; you can quickly see which nearby academic libraries have already done a better job of collection development that you have. In our case, it’s RIT.


I grant you that those aren’t all the possible concerns. And while they may over-simplify and leave out some of the issues, I think these will help faculty to work constructively with librarians in building collections around gaming. Caveats being that these concerns cover mostly current game titles, ignore online or subscription services, and deal mostly with software. But developing plans for loaning consoles, collecting older games and systems, and figuring out how to support subscription models are next on our to-do list for this project.


So, on that note, my questions for discussion are:

  • What are the biggest challenges to building sustainable circulating games collections on your campuses?
  • What partnerships are possible among games-interested campus constituencies that enable and strengthen a culture around gaming?


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