Mar 02 2009

Seriously, Play!

Published by rachel at 10:01 am under education, keeping up

by Diana K. Wakimoto (diana.wakimoto(at)

My educational experience in library school was wonderful, but we all know that we learn much more on the job than could possible be covered in school. However, I wish I had learned two things in particular before graduating:

  1. That playing is underrated and necessary, especially when learning new technology, and,
  2. How to make online library resources and services accessible to everyone.

I learned these two lessons after my formal schooling ended, but believe they are important for all librarians to know.

Playing is Underrated

Playing has been severely underrated as frivolous and as having no part in “serious” work. Thankfully, however, playing is starting to be recognized as an important part of “real” work. For example, see Michael Casey’s and Michael Stephen’s Library Journal column, “Let’s All Lighten Up,” or Stephen Abram’s talk, “Twenty five technologies to watch and how.” Both the article and the presentation encourage play as a way of exploring new technologies.

A sense of play makes exploring new ideas, tools and technologies less onerous and opens up the possibility of having epiphanies in the application of these tools by relieving the pressure to be perfectly serious about our work. How many times do we have our best ideas when we feel the pressure to be serious and perfect in our work, or feel pressured to learn in an unsupportive environment? Pressure and the inability to play with new ideas, technologies, and tools makes us less likely to learn in the classroom or on the job. This environment inspires frustration and negativity.

If, though, we are shown new technology and tools in a supportive learning environment, with someone facilitating our learning through play, we are much more likely to have a positive learning experience. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But, this requires an acceptance that playing is a legitimate way of learning and an environment ripe for synergy and epiphanies. I get excited when I learn something new and can see ways of applying that knowledge to my job. But for me, and I suspect for many people, these insights happen more often when I am playing with new technology or tools.

Playing allows our subconscious to mull over problems and see connections that we could miss if we are worried and self-conscious about trying to learn everything (whether about WordPress, Facebook, Second Life, or anything else). Playing makes learning fun again, and we need fun to overcome the technological anxiety from being bombarded by so much new information. At my workplace we hold technology brown bags, where I facilitate playing and exploring new online resources that we can use in our library. These are based on the same theory as the technology pettinz zoos Stephen Abram describes in his webinar — that learning together in a non-competitive, playful atmosphere allows everyone to learn and increase their technology skills without the anxiety. Playing is not superfluous to learning; it is the way to better learning and fuller engagement with technology. So, seriously, go play!

Play as a way to overcome the new digital divide

One way in which play can help us re-envision our services is in overcoming the digital divide in the accessibility of our services. Looking at accessibility as the next digital divide may seem like a complete departure from the admonishment to play more, but accessibility is interconnected with play. Play has a purpose: We play to learn, to improve services to our patrons, and to find uses for new technologies in the library. Playing is one way of synthesizing and internalizing knowledge about new tools, Web 2.0 technologies, and their uses in the library. The web makes it possible for the library to serve a global audience, which makes it all the more imperative that our resources are accessible and understandable for everyone.

Part of providing services to a diverse audience include the responsibility for making our resources accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. As we create and integrate new technologies into our libraries, we need to ask ourselves if these resources are accessible to all; we need to be alert to another digital divide in which some people are able to utilize online resources and services, while others cannot. By playing together and being creative we can provide new and improved resources and services to our patrons, and make these resources and services accessible so everyone benefits.

Free and open source tools let us create accessible resources; we can test the accessibility of online resources, create new resources, and retrofit older resources. When trying to find solutions to accessibility issues, play becomes important because the creativity it inspires translates to new solutions. Through learning communities playing with and utilizing new technologies, we can figure out ways to retrofit older technologies to be accessible and support the creation of new, accessible technologies.

Re(envision) Library Education as Playful and Accessible

My wish for library education is that we learn to stop being unnecessarily serious, that we remember to play, and that we make and use online resources that allow access to people with diverse needs, backgrounds, and abilities. Creativity should be the hallmark of our profession and inclusivity the mark of all our services and resources. There is nothing librarians cannot accomplish, or cannot include in the education of future librarians, if we make it a priority.

Seriously, play! Get your friends and colleagues to do the same, because together we learn and together we can expand our resources and services for all. Perfection is not the goal. Being open to learning, being comfortable with change, and striving for accessibility are goals of our ongoing education as librarians.


Diana K. Wakimoto is the Online Literacy/Public Services Librarian at California State University, East Bay. Email Diana at diana.wakimoto(at) or leave a comment on her blog, The Waki Librarian, at

5 Responses to “Seriously, Play!”

  1. Norma Leistikoon 03 Mar 2009 at 3:56 pm

    I’ve always thought that seriously playing was the most fun and where I learned the most about everything and anything. In spite of one upman ship abounding in the workworld, I still prefer to play to learn. Your are on the right track. Creation and innovation and insight into the world comes through play. I never heard of an animal who learned a new approach by fighting or showing their feathers off. But the playful animals are the ones who try new things…remember the monkey story about the monkey who learned to put salt water (and thus flavored) the sweet potatoes by dipping them in the ocean (Japan, Ken Kesey wrote about too, sorry cannot remember original source of zoologist).

    Play well, stay well, learn more

  2. Andrewon 03 Mar 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I have mixed feelings about this post…

    Firstly, I totally agree with you, that having an attititude toward playing / experimenting / exploring is important, because it leads to innovation. And it’s important to have this attitude when you’re in the workplace

    And that this is a desirable trait for a library professional, or indeed any professional working with technology.


    When it comes to academia, we’re at university, not trade school. Library science is exactly that - a science. We need to base what we learn at university on solid research and evidence, because in the end, we’re studying to increase the amount of *scholarly* knowledge in the field of library science.

    Personally, this is something I’m trying to re-train myself in, as I am just returning to study, after a few years of working in the industry, and it’s suddenly occurred to me how much of my professional practice is based on popular library journals and blogs, and NOT on peer-reviewed research.

    By all means, play in the workplace. That’s healthy. But when you’re in academia, it needs to be serious business.

  3. Sensationalon 03 Mar 2009 at 5:23 pm

    The council that I’m currently working for is so strategic and $ driven that any form of deviation from this thought is seen as time wasting and frivolous. After being at a NSW council for 6 years that was at the absolute other end of the scale your paper Serious, Play has made me realise what it is I have been missing in my work. I am a library manager and believe that I am a good manager and person with a love of providing the community with information for their betterment. It is such that I am considering moving out of the council to do anything, so that I can have the learning in work again.I have been at both ends of the scale and long for the work play end.

  4. Diana Wakimotoon 04 Mar 2009 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for all the thoughtful comments and responses to my article! I’ve enjoyed reading them and learning about your experiences with learning new technologies.

    Norma, thank you so much for bringing up the example of animals that play and learn. Playing is a mark of intelligence–just like the example you used of the monkeys and that we also see in crows and ravens.

    Andrew, thank you for sharing your view on the place of play and seriousness in both the professional realm and in academia. However, I must respectfully disagree with your statement. As I often tell my students, most situations are not black and white, either-or propositions. You can maintain both a sense of play and a dedication to furthering the scholarship and knowledge in library science in academia.

    In my mind, a sense of play is both necessary and wonderful for learning, as I said, new technologies and also being in a mindset that lends oneself to creatively applying new technology in the classroom. I learn and share technology with the other librarians on my campus so that we can all innovate and try new things in our teaching.

    However, this does not preclude me, in any way, from also doing what would be considered serious research. I do both and am most happy doing both. And I think, for me at least, if I was forced to be so serious all the time, I would not be able to either think of or execute as many research projects as I currently undertake. Academics, thank goodness, do not have to be serious all the time.

    It is often, when playing or going off on another tangent, that the epiphany for fixing a methodology, analyzing data or understanding a new finding is most likely to appear–at least in my case.

    I have met many academics who, most likely, would agree with your take on the business of play. But for me, I’ll continue playing and researching because that’s what works for me.

    Thanks again to everyone for reading and leaving such thoughtful comments.

  5. glenon 11 Mar 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks for this post. Play helps us experience the joy of learning and teaching and reinforces the desire to learn and teach more.

    Teaching and learning are natural functions that are part of basic human nature.

    Unfortunately we have delegated much of this natural function to institutions. There, teaching and learning are a highly ritualized performance that really doesn’t work for its intended purpose in many ways. We mistake institutional practice for the real thing and loose touch with our natural propensity to teach and learn.

    Acquiring literacy with ICT seems to be a particularly fearful proposition for many people. It pushes them outside of the comfort zone conditioned by many years of institutional learning.

    Playing with social networking tools and enjoying connections with other people is a very liberating and transformative experience.