Libraries and Virtual Worlds: What’s Happening

CIRI Blog

Published: September 26, 2012 by Lori Bell

From 2006-2010 or so, libraries and education exploded in virtual worlds, especially the virtual world of Second Life. Hundreds of articles were written and experiences shared. There was a very large active group of librarians and educators building libraries, offering programs, having conferences and events. Alliance Library System (Now RAILS – Reaching Across Illinois Libraries), the New Media Consortium, and San Jose State University SLIS, among others were leaders and assisting other educational groups to get started and succeed. Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life even had several full-time positions dedicated to education.

There were always many challenges including the steep learning curve, the intense graphics required, the broadband needed, the huge amount of time it took to create and make things happen and many others. There were and still are many in the library field who think virtual worlds are a waste of time. For a number of reasons, many librarians were totally against those they felt were wasting time and energy in these environments.

I was very involved in the virtual world movement in libraries. I worked at Alliance Library System which allowed me actual work time to do things in Second Life. When we first started, hardly anyone involved was given work time to spend in a virtual world. We had hundreds of volunteers who gave of their own time. We were very successful with grant funding to try different things and to hire people to work on projects and views from administrators began to change a bit.
I taught in Second Life and I was convinced that Second Life and platforms like it were going to be a new distance learning platform. Pioneer Dr. Jeremy Kemp worked with others to develop SLOODLE, a mixture of Second Life and Moodle, a popular text-based learning management system. I loved the ability to teach in an immersive environment where a class could meet on a cloud, in an open air auditorium, or in an historical build. It felt almost like face to face with everyone having an avatar. Even though you could not read their expressions, it seemed more involved and like face to face than a traditional text-based learning management system. Students from all kinds of fields could learn new skills hands-on – from reference librarianship to medicine, to handling disasters. The creativity expressed by students was amazing and exciting as well. I had the honor of teaching a course with Dr. Jeremy Kemp and students could design their own ending project – a collection – a special library – or even a library service. Teaching reference with Dr. Diane Nahl was exciting as well. The students were required to work at the reference desk a certain number of hours in the virtual world to get some reference experience.

What happened?
In 2008, the economy tanked. Libraries, including Alliance Library System started experiencing budget cuts and staffing cuts with no staff to work in virtual worlds except on their own time. In 2010, ALS cut most of their positions, including mine. Linden Lab doubled the price of educational sims – to that point, education was given a 50% discount. Linden Lab also cut their staffing for education activities. With the increase in price and smaller staff, many organizations involved in education just had to leave Second Life.

Mobile services started becoming popular and widespread. With limited staff and budget, it makes sense that libraries would spend what they did have on new mobile services to serve a much larger constituency of people who had mobile devices rather than the much smaller percentage in virtual worlds. The bold prediction the Gartner Group made in 2007 that 80% of adults using the Internet would be in virtual worlds in 2011 never did come true.

In 2012, there are still educators in Second Life and other virtual worlds. Conferences are still happening. Classes are still meeting. The educators still there and those that have been there are still very loyal to its possibilities. The naysayers are still naysaying. Some educators and librarians are using other platforms like OpenSim and others.
A seminar in Second Life or another virtual world can be so much more exciting and immersive than other online seminar platforms. Granted, the learning curve is steeper as well. You can visit the Globe Theater; be a part of a jousting tournament with Henry VIII in the audience; or visit the palace of Versailles and chat with Marie Antoinette. I think there is a bright future for virtual worlds/games in terms of education, library service and programs, and professional meetings. The right platform just isn’t here yet. I don’t think Second Life will be the platform; I still don’t think we know what it will be. If those who can will keep plugging away and taking advantage of and testing new developments and platforms, I think we will have avatars that travel from the web to a game to an educational 3d platform. I think that colorful 3d websites with avatars will go hand in hand with the text based distance learning platforms we are using now. People may have one avatar – digital representation of themselves – that can travel across different platforms or perhaps one for professional and one for personal uses. I think the promise is out there – it’s just not the right time yet.

I did ask Rhonda Trueman, Abbey Zenith in Second Life to provide me with an update on what the library community is now doing in Second Life. Abbey was involved from the very beginning and was part of the group that started the Community Virtual Library in 2010 when Alliance Library System had to withdraw from Second Life. Here is what she had to share:

“This year marks the sixth year that librarians have worked in virtual worlds! Although some may think that libraries in virtual worlds was a fad embraced by early adopters then abandoned, the truth is we are still here: still operating libraries, still helping people, still providing information, and still creating events. It is true that with the changes to the economic climate librarians had to pay closer attention to their real life patron base and had less time for “extra-curricular” activities such as exploring what libraries could do in a virtual environment. Academic librarians fared a little better in this respect because virtual worlds continue to be used in education, but we still have a great mixture of volunteers. We’ve watched our library in Second Life grow and grow and grow, then reform and resize to a more sustainable model. We started when Lori Bell rented a parcel for the first working library in a virtual world and now we’re returning to our roots by downsizing and sharing common space in 2013. This will allow us to still do the things that are important like serving virtual world residents and the librarians and library students who explore and participate in library activities, while freeing us from the responsibility of major fundraising.
Were extremely proud of the volunteers of Community Virtual Library (and Alliance Virtual Library before us). Whether they have come and stayed or come and gone on to other projects, we have learned from them and we believe that the experience has been beneficial for them as well. Many librarians that have been a part of this experience have gone on to seek higher degrees, to publish papers and books, to find teaching positions, and to find grants and employment for work in virtual worlds. We stand ready to face the future with a core of steadfast volunteers, new explorers, and bright new library students. We are looking forward to 2013 and the ability to do more with less, to have a closer knit library community, and to keep serving the residents of Second Life. Over the years we have explored other virtual worlds, but for us it still makes sense to be in this one – it is where we are most likely to find a population of users that have interest and need of our services. And they will find us at the reference desk, in a workshop or conference, at a book discussion, or on the dance floor. The welcome sign is still out!”

For students and librarians wanting to try Second Life, Dr. Pat Franks and the VCARA group are also very active in Second Life planning exciting monthly events and continuing education programs.

I think the mobile future is exciting and important. Libraries should be spending money and staffing on making sure they have services and materials available on mobile platforms. More people are using mobile and may be using mobile services than visiting the library in person or using our websites and services. I believe the mobile platform is the main platform for the twenty-first century as more and more people use these devices – phones and tablet computers. Many more people are using mobile devices than virtual worlds, 3d websites or even games.

I still think virtual worlds/3d environments/games will continue to grow; the learning curve will lessen; and these environments will be more accessible. I just don’t think we are there yet.