Fun and Games at the Library
Check this out: Libraries add board games to books as a way to stimulate intellects and increase social interaction
What happens when you take two of America's most popular hobbies — reading and board games — and build a career out of them? You get a fairy tale job with modern-day twists. Just ask Jenn Bartlett.
Bartlett's formal job title — backed by a master's degree in library science — is Head of Reference and Adult Services at the Manchester Public Library in Manchester, Connecticut, where she has worked since 2014.
But on television, across the Internet and in hobby circles she is better known by the catchier social media handle associated with her passion project: "The Board Game Librarian."
As an ambassador for accessibility, inclusion and social connections, she aims to inform the public about the benefits of playing board games as a hobby and be a resource for libraries that want to start board game collections everyone can enjoy.
A Generation Gap
While working as a library assistant during graduate school, Bartlett noticed that a particular segment of public library users was conspicuously missing.
"A lot of people stop going to a library when they finish high school, and then they don't come back until they have kids."
"Part of my master's work was on programs and services that Millennials would be interested in," says Bartlett, referring to people from their late 20s to early 40s. "A lot of people stop going to a library when they finish high school, and then they don't come back until they have kids."
Bartlett had an idea about how to fill the generation gap and pitched it to her boss: What about starting a library board games program for adults? Since her husband Matt introduced her to the board game hobby several years earlier, Bartlett had become an avid player. A library board games program could serve several purposes, she proposed: access, connections and inclusion.
Bartlett says that while fostering social connections, board games offer people an opportunity to take a needed break from technology.
Beyond books, today's public libraries offer a variety of resources, including play-based programs and board games. Interest in board games is not limited to libraries. Statista Market Research says global board games sales will be around $3.8 billion this year; North America is the biggest market, accounting for 31% of global sales.
Bartlett says that while board games foster social connections, they also offer people an opportunity to take a break from technology.
"You're having real in-person face-to-face contact, which we've been lacking in our society — experiences without our phones," she adds. "It's exciting that there's more space for that in our lives."
Leveling the Playing Field
By making a hobby accessible to everyone in the community, libraries can help level the playing field, says Bartlett.
"You want everyone to have access because that's one of our pillars of librarianship. . . . We can do that by offering programs and circulating board games."
"There doesn't need to be any gatekeeping in this hobby. That's why libraries are fantastic," she adds. Modern board games can be very expensive, and thus are not an equitable hobby.
"If someone is a single mom with three kids, working two full-time jobs to put food on the table, (she is) barely making ends meet," Bartlett says. "You want everyone to have access because that's one of our pillars of librarianship — access for everyone. How can we do that? We can do that by offering programs and circulating board games."
Bartlett founded the Silk City Board Game Group — a tribute to Manchester's history as a silk-making center — in 2015. To remove financial, social and language barriers, the adult board game group's monthly gatherings are "come as you are" events, says Bartlett.
Free Snacks and Free Help
"We provide all of the games. We have free snacks. I have volunteer teachers who teach the games to people," she says. "They do all the heavy lifting — you don't have to read a rule book or punch out the pieces. You literally have to come in, pick a game and sit down. That's it."
Bartlett says that between 16 to 60 people attend board game program events.
Stretching a monthly budget, being green and having an opportunity to "try it before you buy it" are a few good reasons patrons should check out a library board game collection. Manchester Public Library has more than 1,000 games in its collection, including games for adults, children and teens.
"You could come in with your valid library card from anywhere in Connecticut and check out as many board games as you can carry out of my building," says Barlett.
A Game Plan for Getting Games
The Board Game Librarian has some advice for patrons who are interested in getting games at their local library. "What I say to patrons is, 'Just ask,' because they're probably not the only ones who want that service."
She also has some thoughts for librarians looking to start a collection.
"The collection here is atypical. Partly, that is because of my mentality of 'Go big or go home,'" Bartlett says. "When I'm working with other librarians across the world, I generally recommend 25 games to start with. It's a good amount. It's not too costly. You can test the waters, you can see how your patrons like it."
Small Library Is Big on Board Games
Situated 21 hours southwest of Manchester, in Yellville, Arkansas, Marion County Library is a "postage stamp" sized facility overseen by an (allegedly) loud, board-game-loving librarian.
Library Director Dana Scott, also known as "Dana the Loud Librarian," serves with Bartlett as a member of the American Library Association's Games and Gaming Roundtable.
After attending a program on making board games available in libraries, Scott says she pondered how it would work in Yellville. Seeing the gap in recreation options between Yellville, population 1,178, and her hometown, Branson, the Missouri tourist destination with 10 times as many residents, she set out to create more opportunities at the library.
"There's not a movie theater here," Scott says. "You don't have a place where you can check out DVDs. I said, 'Let's make this a one-stop shop.'"
Impromptu Match Games
Scott says that Marion County Library's board game collection debuted in 2017, and usage has been steady. The library offers several board game groups, including kids, online players and "grannies who game." That last group, which is held weekly at 10 a.m., originated as a local matchmaking project.
"A retired teacher came in who had learned that we had the game "Qwirkle," and she thought that would be fun to learn," Scott says. "A couple of days later, she returned and said, 'I couldn't play it.' "
"We have guys who come and moms who come with their one-year-olds. . . . Games are for everyone."
The next week, another disappointed patron returned the same game with the same problem — not enough partners.
"I said, I have an idea — person meet person, we have a program!" recalls Scott.
A little logistical work was required to put it in place.
"We brought them in and had a wonderful time," Scott says. "They told their friends at church and workout group, and now we have a group of 10 to 12 that come."
While initially marketed to "grannies," the group has expanded to become a diverse, multigenerational group.
"We have guys who come and moms who come with their one-year-olds," says Scott. "I don't think age has anything to do with games anymore. Games are for everyone."
Best in Play
Looking to start or expand a tabletop game collection? Bartlett and Scott recommend these games for collectors or gift-givers.