A Christmas Wish

Phil Minchin, who wrote about his View from Down Under last month, returns with a Christmas wish about how libraries might partner up with Steam, a games service widely known and used in the gamer community. Brandon Robbins described Steam and how it works in a previous guest post — Steam-Powered at Your Library — although his focus was using it as a channel for libraries to acquire games for in-library use rather than as a third-party subscription service. Phil has a different idea that would really be something, if it can be brought to pass. Check it out and let us know what you think! — Liz

I have a Christmas wish for libraries: Steam-powered lending.

Who else out there in library land would love to see Steam offer an Ebsco/Wavesound/Overdrive style subscription service delivering PC games to library users?

It’s pretty clear that electronic games are an important part of contemporary culture. However, PC games in particular are increasingly impractical to lend, because the digital rights management (DRM) that impedes piracy outright prevents legitimate sharing ‚ including lending ‚ by locking games to a particular user account.

This is a real shame, because a great deal of innovation and independent game development happens on the PC — in fact, the PC is the platform of choice for avant-garde and experimental game design. If part of libraries’ objective is not only to facilitate access to culture, but to promote intelligent and critical engagement with it, the PC is a key platform for us to support.

Valve Software’s Steam platform could be a remarkably efficient way for us to do this – and it has the bonus of already having an excellent reputation among gamers.

Steam is a PC, Mac and Linux program that allows users to browse its well-curated and high-quality catalogue of games; to purchase and download games they like, and also download free games and demonstration copies of paid games; and keep those games updated. It allows multiple accounts on the same computer, and for the same user to access their account on multiple computers.

What’s more, Steam has a proven capacity to manage time-limited use: many titles have weekends where you can play for free but thereafter have to buy the game to keep playing. Its makers, Valve Software, are willing to engage with people’s expressed needs, and offer cheap (and sometimes free!) tournament licenses. These licenses allow people to install a game on multiple PCs for a few hours, or even a full day of multiplayer fun. It also has amazing metrics and a rock-solid user interface.

Pretty much the only things Steam doesn’t have are the ability to authenticate to a library management system, and age-locked ratings by jurisdiction. However, our library management software can block loans by borrower age, so solving the former gives us the latter.

The benefits to gamers are clear: your local public library enables you to try out that title you’ve been curious about — awesome. It doesn’t matter if it’s an indie game or a new author, the library puts it in your hands.

For libraries? How much easier would it be to run book-club-style games clubs, where games are not only played but discussed intelligently with other game-lovers, if the library had the ability to ensure that everyone could access a copy? How good would it be to enable access to not only the expensive AAA console titles, but some of the amazing independent work that will never get a console release? With libraries focused on console games to date, it is hard for us to provide this cutting edge content to our users. This is how we could generate much more interest about our services, and at the same time develop intelligent, critical discussion about the increasingly important artform of games (as I discussed in my last post).

And for anyone concerned about the future of our culture: how much more opportunity will there be for genuinely creative, intelligent, affecting, interesting games to succeed in an environment where libraries are fostering discussion and play?

I’ve already floated the idea informally to Leslie Redd, who is an Education Officer at Valve and doing some amazing work with games in schools. I’m now floating it to all of you to gauge how much interest there is in the library profession, and specifically the gaming contingent. Please leave a comment below to tell me what you think ‚ and, if you like, email me at euchronic@gmail.com and/or pminchin@portphillip.vic.gov.au. I’ll collate everyone’s responses and pass them onto Valve and to relevant library groups.

Thanks everyone!

Disclosure: This piece has been published in tandem with a companion piece aimed at raising awareness of these possibilities among the game development community on the author’s Gamasutra blog.


Phil Minchin is a library IT team leader at the Port Phillip Library Service. He recently won a travel grant from the Spydus Users Network (sponsored by Civica Library & Learning) to visit the US to study games in libraries. He attended GenCon, WorldCon, and PAX, and spoke to representatives of local libraries from around the country, researching everything from the nitty-gritty of stock management to big-picture issues of games and their cultural context. For more information about the trip and/or his findings, contact him at pminchin@portphillip.vic.gov.au or euchronic@gmail.com.

Edited to add: Phil’s blog post on Gamasutra, one of the best recognized venues to talk to game designers and professional developers, was given a Featured posting today, 20 Dec 2011, placing it on the front page of that site. — Liz



  1. Danielle says:

    If Steam partnered with libraries, we would definitely be interested. DEFINITELY!

  2. Kira says:

    This is a really great idea; I know I’d love to be able to check out games from my library like this!

    My only real concern would be inadvertently alienating poorer patrons who might not have the means to upgrade older PCs to accommodate the higher-quality graphics a lot of big-name titles require.

  3. Andrew says:

    I can certainly see the appeal here. We’ve been talking about a game collection at my library for a while, but one of the biggest stumbling blocks is physical space. It’d be nice to have an option that sidestepped that issue. Also, I know our patrons love to be able to do things from home.

  4. Michelle Chrzanowski says:

    I think this is an excellent idea. I use Steam at home and there are so many great games available. This would really be something great to have at the library and I am most definitely interested!

  5. Thomas Vose says:

    Anything to better incorporate gaming into the library. Steam would be an excellent partner – they have a top-notch infrastructure already.

  6. Celeste says:

    This is a great idea – so many games! Would love to see this happen.

  7. Lorraine Johnston says:

    I think there’s a market there. Libraries need to move with the electronic world, not try to ignore it. And those objectors who may say there is no place for gaming in a library might do well to remember that we (well – previous generations, anyway) once said the same about fiction!

  8. Christina says:

    I think this is a fantastic idea! We’ve been talking a little about trying to join Steam to participate in a tournament with a neighboring library, but we hadn’t made it happen yet. I love this idea!

  9. Karin Thogersen says:

    We currently have a circulating collection of CD & DVD-ROMs and although it’s been popular, in the last couple of years it’s become extremely frustrating trying to figure out which games are going to come with restrictive DRM. I’ve pretty much stopped purchasing them because of this. Steam might be a good way to provide acccess. I’d definitely be interested in seeing how this might work…

  10. Matt Morrison says:

    I can say as a librarian and a gamer that I think there would definitely be a market for a service like this. We’ve been asked repeatedly why we don’t check out video games like we do movies and CDs and the main factors have been expense, theft worries and piracy issues. A subscription service ala EBSCO would allow us to deal with all three concerns.