What a Librarian Can Learn from Chess

A few years back I bought a chess board for our library, the kind with a magnetic board that makes it a bit portable, and one where I hoped students wouldn’t lose pieces too easily. I placed it on a spare student-sized desk near the library’s entrance with two nice chairs on either side. Teachers and students began sitting down or huddling deep into a game while waiting for a class to end or during a free period. I placed our few books about chess next to our game and hoped the board would help welcome in more library users. Then the school year ended.

When the new school year began, I put the chess board back on its desk. Three days into that school year, a handwritten notice was found under the board:

Collaborative Chess

  • Look at the piece of paper to see which color’s move it is.
  • Make a legal move.
  • Flip the card for the next passer-by.
  • After moving put the paper under the piece you just moved.
  • If you move a rook or a king mark it here so that we can know if we can legally castle.

Two pawns were moved into the center and under the black pawn was another scrap of paper reading “white’s turn (flip over after moving).” In an upper corner was another paper stating “not check.” (Check was written on the other side.)

Two seniors spearheaded this campaign and set it up without my knowledge. When I asked the two about it they explained to me that while they passed the board almost every day (at the time, our library also served as thoroughfare for students to get to certain classrooms), they rarely had time to stop and play a whole game of chess. Making the game collaborative meant they could play when they were able, but didn’t make them late to class. I thought it was a great student driven solution, and only asked them to neaten up the instructions by typing them and mounting them for me, which they were happy to do. From that day on, the game was always on. The board was open to every member of the school community every day of the school year.

Aside from creating a more user-friendly version of chess for our school, and reminding me that the best library activities will be those where the students take ownership, these two students did something else for me. They created a tangible example of a wiki that I could show teachers (and students).

The simple directions written by the students could easily be translated to directions for any wiki site. Let’s look at these rules again:

Collaborative Chess = Using a Wiki

  • Look at the piece of paper to see which color’s move it is. = Read the information already on the site.
  • Make a legal move. = Look for an area where you can contribute & submit the information you want.
  • Flip the card for the next passer-by. = Exit the site
  • After moving put the paper under the piece you just moved. = Wiki History tabs
  • If you move a rook or a king mark it here so that we can know if we can legally castle. = Wiki Discussion tabs

Here was a physical example of the collective group working together to create something, even though each member of the group remained relatively unknown. Some days, the board remained stagnant without little-to-no action. Other days there would be a flurry of action with half the pieces off the board by lunch time. To read the Revision History tab of a page of Wikipedia, like J.D. Salinger after his death, one could see the same waxing and waning interest for a topic on an online wiki. ‘ The players of these chess game were varied in skill, just like the authors of any wiki page. Did I always know who played the game? No. I didn’t. Did every person who moved a piece on the board know how the rules of the game? I know for a fact they did not, but they moved the pieces anyway. People contributed because they could. People took an interest in the collaborative chess game because what was being asked of them was manageable and easy. Couldn’t the same be said for many successful wikis?

There were times when a collaborative game would be ended in favor of two or more students wanting to dig deep into a full two person only game of chess. I liken those moments to times when we as information gatherers decide to invest in an area of interest more fully, where depth of our own interest outweighs the collective breadth. At those times the needs of the immediate user who craves more supersedes those of the unknown user who could come later. At those times, we may have to move away from a beloved wiki to another resource. But afterward the collaborative version would always return.

Our library chess board, like wikis, met students where they were in terms of skill and interest. There were a variety of entry points into the game with little to no consequence for mistakes. It brought students to the library who never found the time otherwise. And did I mention the best part? It was pretty fun.

About Kate Covintree

Currently working as an Upper School librarian at an independent school in Rhode Island.
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5 Comments

  1. What a fantastic idea! And I like the way you use it as a metaphor for wikis. I will definitely implement this into my library when I find one. Regardless of whether it is an academic, public, or school library, I think a collaborative chess game would work so long as it is placed in an area with sufficient traffic. Thanks for the idea. I hope you don’t mind, I will re-post this blog entry to my own blog. Cheers!

  2. I have posted a link to this blog entry on my personal blog. Thank you.

  3. Love this idea for creating conversation and community among people of all ages — remember that phrase I never liked: “passive programming?” This makes me think of the next generation of that…

  4. Look at the piece of paper to see which color’s move it is. (One card– says white on one side, black on the other?)

    After moving put the paper under the piece you just moved. (Same piece as above?)
    If you move a rook or a king mark it here so that we can know if we can legally castle. (Where is here?)

    Is the paper with check/ not check the same piece, or another?

    How many pieces of paper are there?

  5. Interesting idea. I knew a large family who play chess this way, with a magnetic set posted on the refridgerator. Anyone could make a move as they passed by, and the game would go on and on. When white or black won no one had any ego about it. They just looked at the position and the game for itself.

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