NYPL’s Find the Future: a pre-game interview with a player

May 19, 2011

The logo of the New York Public Library. A stylized black line drawing of a male lion.

The New York Public Library is outstanding at a lot of things, and one of them is the use of social media and the Internet. They’re not just on the Internet because they feel like they’re supposed to be; like most other things that NYPL does, they’re innovating and being leaders with their online presence. They post storytimes on YouTube and explain why they matter. They use Foursquare and Twitter, of course, and even have their own Foursquare badge. Their Facebook presence is slick and interesting and informative. And they have an outstanding Tumblr feed that they use to highlight items from the library’s collection, draw attention to the importance of libraries and librarians, promote programs, advocate for library funding, and generally be on the Internet in an interesting way. They even observe Caturday!

So NYPL is cool and that coolness translates to their online presence. And then, as part of the centennial celebration of the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (you know, the one with the lions Patience and Fortitude and the gorgeous reading room), they announced Find the Future: The Game (tagline: “Some people go through life letting history happen to them. Others make history. If you can find the future, you can make history.”), in which 500 people will be locked in the library overnight on May 20th (tomorrow!), divided into teams, and then charged with missions to find specific objects in the library’s collection and then complete a writing quest. If the players succeed, their writing will be collected into a book and added to the library’s collection. (More details on the game here.) And the game is designed by Jane McGonigal, whom I heard speak at PAX East earlier this year about the importance of games and the good games and gamers can do. (More from Jane on Find the Future and gaming and on NYPL and Find the Future specifically.)

The marketing image for NYPL's Find the Future: The Game. It looks like a comic book-style poster with four people standing in front of the library, rays of colored light shooting out of the front door. Accompanying text gives a few details about the event.

Find the Future is so great on so many levels. For library lovers, it’s an awesome way to get to know the library better, to have a unique experience with the library, and to contribute something to the collection. For New Yorkers who are into writing or social media or scavenger hunts or games or going on quirky missions, this is an awesome way to show them that the library can be a cool place for cool things. And for people across the country, this is a stellar way to showcase what libraries are, what they have, and what they can be about. (And non-library people did take notice: Laura Miller wrote a piece for Salon called Why libraries still matter about… well, just that, focusing on NYPL specifically.) We need to talk about what we do and we need to be out in the community and offer unique, relevant things. Find the Future is such a fabulous intersection of libraries and community and games and the more I read, the more excited I was about it.

And then I found out that an acquaintance-whom-I’d-like-to-make-into-a-friend, former IRS employee, crusader for social justice, and trained fire marshall Jen Bokoff, was to be one of those lucky 500 people! She is super excited about it, and I’m really happy that she agreed to let me interview her before and afterward. I’m curious about the game itself, but I’m especially interested in Jen’s perspective on libraries–and whether or not it changes after her epic experience this weekend.

How and how often do you use the New York Public Library now? Would you consider yourself a library user?

Honestly, I seldom use the NYPL. I find it a little tough to take advantage of given that I work a full-time, daytime job and library hours are less catered to that. But, when I have the time on weekends, I often at least browse the current exhibit at the Brooklyn Public Library and sometimes check out the featured books. I also do sometimes request and pick up books that I can’t borrow from a friend, although I usually read books that are recommended to me that someone already has one way or another, so I just borrow that. So YES, I consider myself a library user–as infrequent as that may be–although I might not be by other people’s standards.

How do you feel about libraries generally? Are they still relevant or necessary today? What role do libraries play now and what role should they play in the future?

I am a huge advocate of libraries. They have to potential to play a HUGE role in growth and development for children and teenagers, and are a source of incredible information, comfort, and escape for all. The Internet doesn’t have the same breadth as a library, not every book makes the Kindle cut, there’s nothing like turning the page of a physical book, and librarians alone are the most fabulous source of recommendations that otherwise would be lost. Further, as book stores are going out of business, it is so essential to preserve libraries as publicly revered, supported, and accessible institutions; otherwise, books will literally be items known to all but enjoyed by few.

But, as with anything, staying current is key. More libraries should provide (through funding! support libraries, folks!) to constituents access to the internet, classes that involve using the library’s resources, and events catered to the surrounding demographic that bring people to the library. In the way that many bookstores have historically hosted authors and celebrities featured in biographies, libraries can bring in guests who are somehow featured in their collection but also with a public relevancy.

I also have always had a problem with Shhhhh! being the common sound/word associated with a library. I appreciate that parts of a library should respect quiet, but what if libraries were a place of conversation, even debate? I predict that it would grow the reach and relevancy within a population significantly, and increases the opportunities to engage people.

What role do games and play have in your life? What effect can games have on individuals and on communities?

I love games and play. In fact, I try to play in some way every day, often through games. Games provide challenges that keep my wheels spinning and opportunities for enjoyable interaction with friends. On a broader scale, both games and play are a way to bring people together, as everyone has made a similar agreement to follow an unnecessary structure and in doing so, share a need to interact in such a way that advances the mutual goals. Because communities are largely based upon interactions and both recognition and discovery of the social structures that exist within, games and play could and should be more widely highlighted to build and strengthen community. [Jen actually designed and taught a class on the sociology of board games, so she knows her stuff!]

How did you find out about the Find the Future game? What made you want to be selected for it?

I don’t remember who first told me about it, but friends knew that this was meant for me. I received no less than ten tweets/emails/Facebook directives within two days of when it was announced. They were right–this is exactly the sort of thing that intrigues and inspires me to no end–so of course I wanted to be selected. And what a once in a lifetime opportunity!

Jane McGonigal said that Find the Future “is designed to empower young people to find their own futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and objects of people who made an extraordinary difference,” and part of the application was to complete the following sentence: “In the year 2021, I will become the first person to…” What was your response? What impact do you want to have on the world?

“…ride an Air Bike around the world in an effort to advocate for non-virtual exercise and fun. Premise of Idiocracy II.” [Jen provided her full response with more detail on what’s important to her–bridging socioeconomic divides, nonprofit work, broadening her own perspective by meeting different kinds of people, and social games–on her blog.]

What are you doing to prepare for your night at the library? What has NYPL been doing to get you ready?

I went on a tour of the library with a bunch of other Find the Future players, and I also (theoretically) have looked at the map a few times. I’ve begun to think about finding a flashlight/headlamp to bring (any offers to borrow, blog readers?!). I have taken Friday morning off of work so that I can sleep in and make sure I can last through the night. The NYPL hasn’t told us too much besides when to arrive and that we need photo ID, but Jane has been moderating a Facebook group for all participants.

Is there any one aspect to spending the night at the library or any one part of the library’s collection you’re most excited about exploring?

No. Because frankly, it’s all fairly unknown to me, and I think wherever the adventure leads will be phenomenal, and sharing the experience so intimately with 499 strangers will be even more phenomenal.

I’ll have more about Find the Future and another interview with Jen after she returns from her adventure.

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