Flying Over to the Reference Desk in Stilleto Heels: Libraries in Second Life

Library of Congress display on the Declaration of Independence in Second Life. Image owned by John E. Lester and used with permission via Creative Commons.

Kathryn Greenhill, in her blog Ten very good reasons why your library should be in Second Life likens virtual libraries to the early days of the Web, saying that just like librarians had to learn how to use the Web to their advantage by first actually learning to use the Web before users were ready to access library web sites, so too is Second Life a useful tool that librarians first have to master before it can be useful to users. She goes on to say that success in SL depends on creating social networks within the virtual world. Among the benefits of using Second Life that Greenhill sees are:

Learning a new interface (SL has components that may be more what the future of Web interaction will be); Getting to interact with librarians all over the world (including having a community of experts to draw on and share with); Increasing coding skills; It’s free; and, it’s fun!

However, Greenhill writes in her blog Six very bad reasons to have a library branch in Second Life, that while there are lots of great reasons to have your library in Second Life, there are drawbacks as well, including: thinking you should because “that’s where the users are” (not exactly); Everyone’s there, including Nike (huh?); It’s easy (not so much – still takes time to maintain); and because it’s Library 2.0.

If there is one over-riding theme here at librareegeek, it’s that Library 2.0 technologies should be used to compliment and enhance existing library practice, and not just for the sake of trying to be modern.

San Jose State University’s Library and Information School (SJSU SLIS) currently has over 1800 distance students from around the world; SJSU SLIS uses Blackboard and other platforms for learning and instruction, and this video is a survey of their Second Life campus, part of the Info Island Archeplego:

For kicks, I started up a Second Life account myself so I could investigate some of these places first hand. It was really easy – it took about five minutes to enter the pertinent information and download the software. Your avatar appears instantly in the tutorial, so I got my bearings while walking (and flying!) through the tutorial. I chose to check out San Jose since it is one of the schools I actually turned down to come to SLAIS, and so I spent a fair amount of time on their website when I was putting my application together.

Once I figured out how to move around a bit in Second Life, I typed “SJSU SLIS” into the search field and was teleported to their virtual campus, where I walked around, clicking on posters to see URLs, and even opening up a digital version of the Book of Kells. Professors at the school each had rooms in the campus, and I checked out the reading lists for their courses by clicking on the books on the bookshelves, where a URL would appear with information about the book.

SJSU_SLIS

A screen capture of my new avatar looking at a book about taxonomy at SJSU SLIS's virtual campus on Second Life. Click to enlarge.

The SL technology is a bit clunky (sounds are not always synchronous with actions, for example), but pretty fun actually. At first I was worried that I would run into another “resident” there (What SL calls other avatars, which are representatives of actual people who are in the system in real time), but then I started to get kind of creeped out that I didn’t see anyone there. It was sort of beautiful, serene and tidy with nice architecture, furniture and landscaping, but also eerily lonely. There was, however, fun music like Bobby Ferrin and the Talking Heads that popped up periodically as I wandered about. I do actually feel like I got a sense of the school that I couldn’t get from their website alone. I also imagine that if I had ended up “going” to San Jose, it would have been nice to meet up with some fellow students in this space.

Flying up above the campus, I look around and land on an exhibit on Africa, put in Second Life by Stanford University, complete with pictures and links to websites for further information.

I can see how it would be useful for a library to have a presence in Second Life, and actually how fun it can be. But I can see that one of the big challenges is that not everyone uses Second Life. I can also see it being a hard sell for most people. Like Barton Spencer, writing in the Spring 2008 edition of Mississippi Libraries journal (available from UBC Library), says: even though the client tells you that millions are subscribed, the space is actually pretty sparse sometimes, and those that are logged on are rarely in search of a library.

That having been said, sometimes a virtual library can be just what a patron is looking for, especially if there is a question of a sensitive or personal nature. That is exactly the experience of Samantha Thompson, writing in the volume 51, no. 2 issue of the Reference Librarian (available from the UBC Library):

On the virtual reference desk, I’ve been asked many questions that most people would consider very personal in nature. These have ranged from LGBT issues […] to political questions, psychological questions, and even personal medical issues. These topics could have been any topic sensitive to the two individuals. What they had in common was that the topic was one of great delicacy. The difference in this case, and many others, is that the individuals seem to be more comfortable asking these personal questions in the virtual world, but why?

Thompson is writing about two very different experiences with the exact same topic, one being asked by a man in the public library, and the other being a woman in Second Life. The fact that the Second Life patron was confident in asking the question and the in-person patron was mortified, is more than enough argument for the value of virtual libraries for Thompson. I tend to agree.

But, as I have opined in every post on this blog, the tools of Library 2.0 contain possibilities, but are not answers in themselves. As with any technology, if the tool is serving the community’s needs, then it’s a good thing.

Africa Exhibit

Another screen capture from my virtual library adventure, this time my avatar is checking out the Africa exhibit from Stanford University, on Info Archipelago, Second Life. Notice the window with URL information that popped up when I clicked on the map. Notice also that I can't figure out how to get rid of the bag I'm carrying. Click to enlarge.

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