Gaming Librarian Spotlight: Annabelle Blackman

Public Librarian

Interviewed by Julie Hornick

Tell us about yourself. In a nutshell, who are you, and what is your role at your library?

I’ve been in public libraries for almost 20 years, working primarily in children’s services in multilingual, very diverse communities. Currently, I’m a Children’s Librarian at Oakland Public Library, in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. I work in a unique capacity shaping central children’s services as well as working directly with the public at branches. In my non-gaming life, I love walking/hiking with friends, thrifting, boba, and rollerblading. 

What got you into gaming?

A gifted copy of Candy Land led us to the hobby about 8 years ago, when my child was 3 years old. That, and a cheap dollar-store-illustrated version of Go Fish! quickly became her faves. From there, I discovered publishers like Gamewright, Blue Orange, Mindware, and Educational Insights to take our early childhood gaming to the next level. I’m very sentimental about Gamewright’s Outfoxed and will always own it in my personal collection. That was the game that opened my eyes and made me want to learn more about modern hobby board games! 

At the time, my child, like most kids, was heavy into dramatic role-play, which (don’t @me), I hated playing with her. Anyone who’s been berated by their preschooler repeatedly for not ordering correctly on their pretend menu can relate. Don’t get me wrong—I love dramatic play. I see the developmental value of it. I incorporate it weekly in my library storytime. But this girl would play tea party or restaurant for literal hours on end. Discovering board games saved my sanity as a parent. Many kids’ games are heavy on theme and easy to adapt for dramatic play, and, thankfully, have a clear objective and endpoint. I was delighted to find an activity we both enjoyed doing together. In many ways, board games helped me be a better parent. 

Tell us about a time when you had to advocate for your game programs or collection.

Around the same time we started gaming at home, I started working at a location in a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood. At work, my library families happened to be asking for reading help. At home, I was seeing firsthand how early literacy concepts were being carried out in our family gaming, from learning shapes, counting, letters and colors, to building narratives, learning vocabulary, and more. In fleshing out a teen volunteer Reading Buddies program, I realized that games, especially for the younger kids, were going to be a major part of the experience. 

There were some roadblocks. Back then most of our library system’s board game programs were geared toward teens. The idea of utilizing board games to build literacy skills was a new approach. In addition, modern games are also hella expensive!!! It was clear I had to start advocating in order to get funds for what I knew would be fun and interesting to my community. 

I started with sharing stories of how board games helped build community at our branch. We had a season of after-school behavior issues in our Teen Zone and had to staff it every afternoon. I started bringing simple games, Uno, Blink, Monopoly Deal, Sleeping Queens, Wonky, pick-up sticks, etc. Gaming with the tweens helped me build bridges, and we began having positive interactions. Games weren’t a magical cure to our behavior issues, but they helped me connect with my community.  

What is one thing about games or what you do with games that people don’t know about, but that you wish they knew?

Using board games with English Language Learner patrons is a great tool for building bridges too. If you’re facilitating programs with families that don’t share a common language, how can they sit at a table and play together? I had a light bulb moment watching three kids play Zingo. One was fluent in only English, another was trilingual in Spanish, Mayan Mam, and English, and the other child was fluent only in Mayan Mam. They pointed at and identified pictures in the language they were most comfortable speaking. Watching them play and have fun made me see it’s totally possible to game in a multi-lingual environment. 

One of the most impactful lessons I’ve learned that I wish other people knew, too, is regarding accessibility. Both Big Bad Con and Orca Con seek to create inclusive environments. There is specific signage and rule enforcement around this, tables with gaming aids to accommodate various disabilities, and events are run with gender-neutral language and an intention around showcasing games from marginalized communities. Working in an urban library, I’m accustomed to thinking about accessibility when it comes to working in culturally and socio-economically diverse areas, but this was profound for me. I had this moment when we were laughing and joking about, “Wow, this is the first time I’ve been at a con and sat at a table where I’m not the only woman and not the only POC.” That moment alone has made Big Bad Con, a con I will prioritize. Going to cons has helped me see how simple it is to be intentional about accessibility in our library programs. And in the end, it is so much more fun, because more people will be able to fully take part!

That deeper work of making this hobby accessible to all continues to be an intriguing topic for me to explore. After my first Orca Con, I felt the need to create my first public social media account (something I was always hesitant to do) to continue these conversations outside the library field. For me, Twitter has been a great platform to learn and interact with the board game industry or board game adjacent folks. It’s been eye-opening to connect with folks who also seek to remove the gatekeeping around board games and truly want everyone to feel welcome at the table. In many ways, social media feels like shouting into the void, but every so often someone in the board game industry or another gamer will respond to a post or DM me, and I realize folks really do not know what we do at libraries. So, I continue shouting into the void and hope you can find a way to as well. Board game people need to hear what we have to say!


Do you know a librarian or library paraprofessional who likes games and/or runs gaming programs at their library that should be spotlighted? Maybe even yourself? Fill out this form! Nomination is not limited to ALA Game and Gaming Round Table members.

2 comments

  1. this was such an exciting and inspirational read! I’m in my first semester of Library School, and work in 2 different library makerspaces, and would love to implement some gaming into our program, whether its 3D printing parts to then use in a second meeting for the game portion, or having patrons come up with a game rules for a general template as an activity – this field is new to me but definitely exciting and I’m grateful for this page!

    1. Hi Tova – Our branch actually provides free 3D printing for the public, (with small limitations re: time, content, etc. Like it can’t take more than 6 hours, and no weapons).

      A fair amount of the requests seem to be for minis for folks personal gaming.

      Our DnD DM will actually have custom pieces made for his campaigns for the Teen DnD program. I know some systems have even done mini-painting sessions.

      Good luck on your endeavors!

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