February 2, 2010 By Russell Nichols
If Garrett Olsen takes his eyes off the computer screen for one second, he could die.
It wouldn't be the first time. In fact, if you ask Garrett, who's 11, how many times he's died already, he'll give a casual response: "In this game? About a million."
It's Saturday afternoon, the middle of the fall, warm enough to play outside. But Garrett and his friend Chandler would rather be at the Folsom, Calif., Public Library, absorbed in a world of medieval knights, castles and keys - the name of the game is RuneScape.
Right now, they're talking to each other, trying to find the secret door that will take them to the next level. But they move with caution. If they open the wrong door, they'll have to start over. Again.
The boys go to the library often to play this free online game, but Nov. 14 was special because they were counted among the 31,300 people who flocked to libraries across the country for National Gaming Day. Only in its second year, the annual event sponsored by the American Library Association more than doubled its numbers from 2008. More than 1,360 libraries registered to participate, including libraries in Canada and Japan. Morocco expressed interest for next year.
The numbers don't lie: People love playing games at libraries. But this is more than just a once-a-year phenomenon. In the past decade, technology has taken the age-old library model to the next level. By adopting interactive, gaming trends, modern-day libraries help open doors to the world of virtual, hands-on learning in ways never seen before.
National Gaming Day, organizers say, offers a glimpse into that world.
"The event was designed to promote awareness that you can actually play at the library and that it's OK," said Jenny Levine, strategy guide for the American Library Association. "There's this stereotype that you have to be quiet, people will shush you and you have to sit by yourself at a table. That's not true anymore."
Photo: The Folsom Public Library Georgia Murray Building opened to the public in 2007, followed by the Norman R. Siefkin Public Library in 2008. Together the new libraries offer 33,000 square feet of space and state-of-the-art services. Photo by Craig Learoyd.
Since the beginning, libraries have been archives for the sacred texts and published records of the world - from papyrus scrolls in ancient Egypt and clay tablets at the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal - to the endless rows of fiction and nonfiction books. These structures provided storage to literary works and reference materials, but also acted as a community anchor, where citizens from all walks of life could find common ground in the pursuit of knowledge.
As the digital age swept the country, it was a question as to whether libraries could survive the new millennium. In modern societies, where the Internet puts information at your fingertips, and you can download books with the click of a mouse, would public libraries still be relevant?
The answer - a resounding yes - resonates from the streets of Philadelphia, where the community united last fall to save 11 branches of the public library system from closing due to the city's financial crisis. After residents flooded courtrooms and wrote letters to elected officials, the state Legislature acted on a budget request that kept all 54 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia open.
Such an outpouring of support reflects the significance of the library system in American cities. "It's the last noncommercialized space left in the community," Levine said.
Community support underscores its value, but the longevity of the public library system also can