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What's playing at the library?

IT'S THE hip new thing. Your teenagers are begging for it. And it's likely to be at your local library. What's the big draw? The answer might surprise you - video games.

IT'S THE hip new thing. Your teenagers are begging for it.

And it's likely to be at your local library. What's the big draw? The answer might surprise you - video games.

Video games? At the library? Is that . . . proper?

The answer, according to nearly 75 percent of libraries across the United States, including here in Philadelphia, is a resounding "Yes!"

It's important to remember debates like this have taken place as long as libraries have existed. Once upon a time, for example, U.S. library patrons were required to sign out several nonfiction books before they could sign out any fiction, since nonfiction was somehow more worthwhile.

Indeed, at a growing number of libraries, according to Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, video games are all the rage. Public libraries are acquiring "Dance, Dance Revolution," "Super Mario Galaxy" and "Guitar Hero." They're holding video tournaments and creating gaming clubs. They're bringing in game equipment and video screens, and hiring consultants. As a result, library attendance among some of the hardest-to-reach demographics - kids, teens and college students - is growing.

According to Jenny Levine, Internet-development specialist for the ALA, more than 75 percent of those who attend game programs return to the library for nongame service. But shouldn't libraries be places of edification? Be encouraging kids to read, not play games?

While libraries have always focused on books and learning, they also have always taken their role in strengthening communities through literacy very seriously. Libraries are unique in that they offer lifelong education and self-help for people of all ages, from preschoolers to retirees.

According to a recent study by Scott Nicholson, director of Syracuse University's Library Game Lab, gaming programs at libraries address a multitude of goals. Some use games to teach and reinforce information literacy, others to provide entertainment; still others expand the library's role as a community hub.

"Dance Dance Revolution," with all its physical activity, was provided to the Free Library of Philadelphia as part of a "Fit for Life" grant and is being used as a way to improve health and fitness for teens. A library system in New York is building an educational-board-game library for use in school media centers to support school curricula. A Florida library is offering career-fair programming around game design.

Libraries are changing and dynamic places, continuously developing innovative programs and services that educate, entertain and expand interaction with their neighbors down the block, as well as the global community. Offering games in libraries is just another example of their effort to reach diverse users.

Video games are also great for helping libraries challenge their inaccurate image as dusty and outdated. The Free Library of Philadelphia is in the midst of planning a renovation and expansion that would turn it into a state-of-the-art facility to include 300 new public- access computers and a teen center all aimed at attracting an even wider, more diverse and inclusive group of patrons.

Besides being a big draw to the younger generation, many games appeal to entire families. With new systems like Nintendo's Wii and more traditional board and card games available, all members of the family can play, from kids to grandparents.

So check out a book, DVD, CD or soon a video game at your library. Bring grandma, the kids - or your book club - and take a look at what we have to offer. We just might surprise you. *

Loriene Roy is the first president of the American Library Association to have an avatar on Second Life, an Internet social-networking site. Joseph McPeak is interim president and director, Free Library of Philadelphia. The ALA's midwinter meeting is here today through Wednesday.