BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP - One of Kailey Ferguson's favorite places in the world is the library. The 8-year-old from the Forked River section of Lacey Township commonly returns from a trip to the library with her arms filled with books and then eagerly reads them all.

But on Saturday, Ferguson was one of more than 20,000 youngsters worldwide who went to their local libraries for a different purpose: to play video games.

Since 2008, the American Library Association has encouraged libraries to set aside a Saturday in November to encourage children and families to put down their books for a couple of hours and play games.

Jenny Levine, a strategy guide for the Chicago-based association, said libraries have always been a place where people can go for information, knowledge, and experiences, regardless of the method. And gaming, she said, is part of that evolution.

"Libraries have not been solely about books in decades, dating back to phonograph records. And gaming in libraries dates back to the 1880s," Levine said. "But when our membership organization noticed a trend nationally where the new video games were becoming more social, we figured that this was a way that libraries could add some value."

The two previous National Gaming Day events attracted a combined total of more than 57,800 participants at 3,247 libraries. Levine said more than 1,300 libraries in at least 13 different countries registered for this year's event.

And some local libraries - such as the Ocean City Public Library, the Buena Community Reading Center, and branches of the Ocean County Library - were among the 36 New Jersey locations registered for the event, which featured national Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Frogger tournaments.

"It is a way of bringing diverse groups of people together. And what we see is happening is groups of kids playing together that you wouldn't see anywhere else in the community. We'll have middle schoolers play with kids in high school, which does not happen on the school playground," Levine said. "Libraries are the last safe, noncommercialized space in the community. So this is less about the games as it is about social interaction."

In the Barnegat Township branch of the Ocean County Library on Saturday afternoon, Ferguson smiled ear-to-ear as she played a relative stranger, 9-year-old Barnegat Township resident Jordan Martin, in friendly games of tennis and bowling on a Nintendo Wii.

"It is a little strange to be doing this in a library, because that's where you read," Ferguson said. "But I think it's good because it will get other kids to come out to the library who might not have a Wii at their house."

"I think it's really cool to see people playing video games here," Martin said. "I love the library already, but I think I love it even more now."

Gigi Hayes, branch manager of the Barnegat library, said the library also hosts other gaming events throughout the year. And Hayes said she is even contemplating hosting a game night for adults in the near future.

"Studies show that playing games does stimulate the mind by getting people to strategize and visualize in ways they wouldn't do otherwise," said Hayes, adding that the Ocean County Library system even carries video games for their members to check out for two weeks free of charge. "So instead of sitting around in their own homes, they're out here being social and stimulating their minds. That's what libraries are for."

Ferguson's father, Cliff Woerner, said he was surprised his daughter wanted to go to the library for a reason other than to get a book.

"I practically grew up in the library myself, so it is a little odd for me to see people playing video games in library. But with the way CDs and movies have been brought in over the years, I guess it was bound to happen," said Woerner, 29, of Forked River. "My daughter is in enjoying this. But she is absolutely leaving here with books."

Contact Robert Spahr:

609-272-7147

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