Games folks on libraries: Wolfgang Baur

Hi everyone! This year, we’re planning on expanding the blog with interesting new series, and this is the first installment of one of them: we’re inviting folks from the world of games to share their stories about libraries. Each of these posts will follow a simple format: a brief bio, and then an outline of the interviewee’s history with libraries, their sense of where we are now, and their thoughts on the future of libraries, particularly as it pertains to games.

It’s a real pleasure to open with Wolfgang Baur, not only a well-known name in the field of tabletop role-playing games, but a firm devotee of the library – as you’ll see! (Full disclosure: my first paid writing job in the RPG industry was an Open Design project about four years ago.)

Wolfgang Baur is the founder and publisher of Kobold Press, a small press based near Seattle and focusing on tabletop games and fantasy worldbuilding how-to guides. Baur is the author of the Midgard Campaign Setting, co-author of the Dark•Matter setting and large portions of the celebrated Planescape campaign setting, as well as the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, other Kobold Guides to Game Design, and a hundred other roleplaying titles and magazine articles based on Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, and similar games.

Baur is one of the first games publishers to adopt a crowdfunding model for publishing (starting in 2006, before Kickstarter made the process much more accessible). The “Open Design” crowdfunding model of his company’s early period also experimented with collaboration in design, inviting the project backers to brainstorm, pitch, and (in some cases) write material to be included in the companies fantasy adventures.

[Editor’s note: My own experience of this process was overwhelmingly positive. The ideas for the work are discussed among the subscribers; backers at a certain level get to pitch their angle on various aspects of the work, and the group as a whole votes on which concept to incorporate; then the writer can invite readers’ thoughts on their work as they go. It’s something like collaborating on telling a story with your audience, and simultaneously being the audience to different parts of the same story; it’s perhaps not surprising that an idea this polyglottal came from the tabletop role-playing game sector!]

Welcome, Wolfgang! Thanks for being our first interviewee. Let’s begin with our first question: how have libraries figured in your past? What have they meant to you?

My history with libraries is pretty straightforward and also rather conspiratorial: my mother was a professional librarian, I was raised with a lot of books around the house, and I had a library card by the time I was 10. I started reading my way through the elementary school library and (later) found ways to balance a very large number of books on a bicycle without crashing too often.

My mother made it clear to me that librarians are heroic figures, because as a librarian at the Sächsische Landesbibliothek (Saxon State Library), my mother was one of a handful of people who knew that the Dresden Codex was part of the library’s collection–and that it was hidden by the Germans before the end of WW2, to prevent it being looted by the Soviet army. She kept that secret for years, even from my father, and was quite relieved when the Berlin Wall fell and she could, at last, spill the beans about a volume she had surely not seen since she emigrated to the United States 30 years prior.

For me, libraries are where people keep their greatest treasures hidden, their knowledge, and their history.

Very true, and well put! How do you see libraries right now?

Right now, libraries are undergoing titanic shifts, though they are also staying right at the forefront of knowledge, archives, media, and culture. My children go to story time at the local lending library, which I always think of as one of the last bastions of the oral tradition. And students and the homeless alike use the Kirkland library computers, and I’m personally grateful for the University of Washington archives and collections.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone reading that libraries are re-inventing themselves at the same time: the lending library has comic books and manga that my daughter devours, but that were not collected in my youth (how sad for me, how good for her!). They are keeping up with the culture, and graphic novels and manga are just a part of that. And the ability to borrow ebooks makes me giddy; I know it’s complex and Seattle’s system has some real technical advantages (such as a whole tech industry to draw from, and fairly proficient readers). But it’s interesting to see it happen.

Indeed. And how do you see libraries evolving into the future? What role do you see games playing in that?

In future, I expect some of these trends to continue, as library collections grow more complex, retain both digital and physical assets, and continue to offer community connections, research tools, and (my very favorite) help to targeted communities such as the very young, researchers, or reading circles and gaming groups. I remember fondly that the library where I grew up let us take over a table and sometimes a study room to run our games of Dungeons & Dragons and Risk and Gettysburg. I think that board games such as Settlers of Catan and Apples to Apples are both huge fun, and could be the foundation of a family game night at some libraries–or they might offer a game design night based around a title like the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design (a book that educators in the US seem very happy to see). Games remain a powerful and sometimes underappreciated tool for learning math, strategy, and logic, among other subjects.

At the same time, libraries make it easier than ever to access and understand the vast array of digital resources out there: the tutoring nights at my local Kirkland branch are always popular, and the tables are usually covered with both books and tablets. In that sense, libraries are continuing exactly the same mission they’ve always had, using new tools: connecting people and information, informing and educating, and letting patrons explore their world.

Thanks again to Wolfgang for inaugurating this series – and doing so with such an amazing tale of custodianship!

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