At Play in the Academic Library

This week’s post brought to you by guest writer, the creative and enthusiastic Elizabeth Bowman.

Of the many experiences students expect to have in an academic library, play probably never comes to mind.  Seeing a coffee shop within the library probably feels familiar, as do comfortable chairs, and of course they expect librarians, study rooms, and books, and Wii…wait, what?!

Wii station, formerly Library Director office

After building a reputation as a valued and valuable place for our students and colleagues at Santa Barbara City College in the last seven years, you might wonder why we took the risk to become a “playful” place. The position of outreach librarian was created when I was hired. There was no set path to follow and originally I conceived of outreach solely in terms of getting students into the very quiet and underutilized library–for study, to use the resources we had purchased, for classes–as well as urging faculty members–some of whom hadn’t been inside the library for years–to give us another try.  My task was big, but uncomplicated.

During the course of the first year, we studied what students needed and wanted to find in their library.  Besides the typical resources and services, it was evident that students at our community college were drawn to the library as a “third place” in their lives: the place besides work and home where they feel connected. Community college students are likely to have one (or more) jobs, are often caregivers to family members, and have many other stressors. And for some community college students, the library is the ONLY place where their efforts as college students are acknowledged and supported. Librarians to the rescue: the library director relinquished his office for a week during finals to set up a Wii station for student use, and other librarians brought in hula hoops and a friendly dog to “check out” for walks.

Is that “outreach” or merely entertainment?  I believe that even entertainment can be outreach, and frankly we can’t know what will draw, hook, and gratify a student.  And once we have connected with them, we can help them succeed. Research shows that students persist and succeed in college when they find themselves socially, culturally, and academically connected in a community (1). A community college library is in a unique position to serve all those functions in one place.

Entry for 2012 Edible Books Festival

The first major playful event we staged in our library was an Edible Books Festival.  I’d seen it done at a college library in Chicago and pitched it to our faculty and students.  Since we have a culinary arts program, we partnered with those faculty to promote the first Festival and it was a grand, happy, messy success.  Overt pedagogical purposes? Um…no. Pure fun.  What we hadn’t anticipated was that culinary, and other, students discovered the library during this event. Next they began to use the library, a place they hadn’t thought they were allowed to use, and we developed an information literacy workshop for culinary students.

Entry for 2012 Edible Books Festival, featuring our “community read” book Moby Duck

Play, and a playful attitude, can make a place that may be intimidating or unfamiliar, like a college library, a more welcome–or at the very least, a surprising–place.  Ten students perked up during a routine library instruction session recently, when I asked if any of them had been at our Salsa dancing lessons the previous week. Social media tools offer endless possibilities for whimsy and fun, all related to libraries, at least on April Fools’ Day. Not knowing what is coming next–within a lecture or the library itself–has helped us to engage and delight our community, and has built us loyal supporters.  It creates not only a student-centered culture but a culture of possibility: what will happen next in the Luria Library?

Luria Library Librarian and hula hoop master Ellen Carey shows us how it’s done.

Play has deeper meaning than mere diversion and, as a part of outreach in a library, it can deeply benefit students and faculty.  No one doubts the value of play for young children. But research has extended to demonstrate the value of play for adults. Play is considered an important matter of educational and business policy (2) (3).  The power of (and the need for) play for physical as well as mental and community health is the basis of the “Instant Recess” movement urging adults to take ten minute breaks during a work day for actual recess (4). We hope to incorporate recess at SBCC in the library during fall finals, led by our student Kinesiology Club. We added recess to a recent librarian conference we hosted, with hula hooping lessons offered by our Instruction Librarian. Evaluation feedback noted that recess as a feature of the day’s agenda should have been in the promotional materials for the conference! Studying play within an evolutionary framework, researchers noted: “In an ultimate sense, play has helped make us who we are, as adults; and in a proximate sense, it has made being an adult much more fun than it might have been otherwise. “ (5) Keeping a balance in outreach programming, to encompass many needs and provide diverse experiences.  But at some point, all of the adults we work with deserve some play in their academic experience.

Now, I have to leave and set up the “everybody knits” basket.

Find out more about our library or contact me at

Elizabeth Bowman [Assistant Professor, Outreach and Collection Development Librarian] is just one of the fine librarians at the Luria Library at Santa Barbara City College, in Santa Barbara, California.  She serves on two boards for the local public library. When she isn’t in either of those libraries she is probably at the beach, walking with her goofy dog.

Cited in post:
(1) Jensen, U. 2011. Factors Influencing Student Retention in Higher Education. Summary of Influential Factors in Degree Attainment and Persistence to Career or Further Education for At-Risk/High Educational Need Students, by Pacific Policy Research Center. Honolulu, HI: Kamehameha Schools–Research & Evaluation Division.
(2)The Mills College Women at Play Project
(3) National Institute for Play

(4) Instant recess : Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time by  Antronette K. Yancey

(5) Chick, Garry, Careen Yarnal and Andrew Purrington. “Play and Mate Preference Testing the Signal Theory of Adult Playfulness.” American Journal of Play 4.4 (2011): 407-439. Print.

3 responses to “At Play in the Academic Library

  1. Pingback: A guest blog | Waiting for a title·

  2. Elizabeth — nifty blog post! You’ve captured the core of why ‘play’ in the library brings students closer to the joys of learning:) Your leadership as an educator, a librarian, and a celebrator of playful interaction and activity makes a huge difference in the success of our students and of the Luria Library! Brava.

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