Bulletin, April/May 2007

IA Column


Digital Libraries on the MUVE: A Virtual Adventure

by Lori Bell, Kitty Pope and Tom Peters

Lori Bell is director of innovation at the Alliance Library System. She can be reached at lbell927@gmail.com. Kitty Pope is executive director of the Alliance Library System. Tom Peters is founder of TAP Information Services and serves as a consultant and evaluator for the Second Life Library project.

In 1995 libraries with stretched staff and shrinking budgets were suddenly required to put up websites. Now libraries need to consider Web 3D and multi-user virtual environments (MUVES). Academic institutions are looking at virtual worlds like Second Life, Active Worlds and There.com as new platforms for distance learning and to engage people who have grown up with computers, online gaming and the Internet. 

Second Life (www.secondlife.com) is experiencing rapidly increasing use by higher education and businesses. In the 11 months between April 2006 and February 2007 participation has grown from 180,000 to over 3,000,000 registered users. Harvard University Law, Central Missouri State, Bradley University and an estimated 60-80 other education institutions have moved into Second Life to test and use it as a distance education tool. Sun, Dell, IBM and other businesses have also established prominent presences there. 

The Alliance Second Life Library 2.0 closely reflects this growth, interest and level of collaboration. The Alliance Library System, a regional multi-type library system in central Illinois (www.alliancelibrarysystem.com), started an experimental project to see if virtual residents in Second Life would even want a library, and if so, what services would be needed. The answer has been a resounding yes, and growth has been phenomenal. From a rented Second Life storefront in April 2006 the library has become a cultural center spread across seven virtual islands. Together with other islands owned by partners, Second Life Library now forms an Info Archipelago (http://infoisland.org). The main library and resources are housed on Info Island I; exhibits of all kinds are on Info Island 2; HealthInfo Island is a medical and consumer health library; Cybrary City enables local libraries to have a presence in Second Life; Imagination Island is for library vendors; Rachelville specializes in children’s literature and displays; Arts Island has an opera house and hosts art exhibits; and Cybrary City 2 is for larger library organization presences. In addition, there is a branch library in Caledon, a 19th century area featuring Victorian dress, buildings and manners.

Traffic to Second Life Library has increased as citizens have found a great place to meet people, gather for events and exhibits, and find things of interest besides pornography and gambling. The Library has partnered with non-profits, businesses and higher education organizations to provide a variety of services. There are over 200 librarians in Second Life from all over the world, many of them volunteering their expertise to staff the library islands and give tours, provide information services and create collections. There are almost 400 librarians on a Google email group sharing ideas and planning services. Libraries within institutions are also looking at moving in, often as the lead from their institutions in establishing a presence in Second Life. 

Very few libraries are able to staff a virtual presence on their traditional websites to provide services 24/7. However, collaborative virtual reference services, in which libraries participate in a statewide or global system, do enable libraries to assist one another and achieve 24/7 coverage. We believe this collaborative approach will also work for virtual libraries in 3D MUVE spaces. 

Content is king, but in the 3D virtual library space, collaboration is key. Setting up a library with traditional and new services takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. Through global collaboration, libraries can have their own local presence while contributing shared expertise, coverage, collections, services, programs and events to the larger Second Life Library project. As more libraries start developing Web 3D services, we will need to develop several models of collaboration.

The challenges of establishing digital libraries as "third places" are many. Access can be a major difficulty. Second Life and similar platforms require a fairly new computer and a broadband connection, and not all people or areas have these capabilities. Stretching staff to provide or even collaborate on virtual services is also a challenge. There is no integrated shared audio in Second Life (although one can use voice over IP solutions like Skype). There is no easy way to provide web-based training or tours of Second Life – visitors have to load and access the virtual environment through the Second Life program itself. For people who have not experienced online gaming, the learning curve can be steep. 

One disadvantage that is also an advantage is that MUVEs are fun. It is easy to get absorbed by all the things there are to do and see. You might plan to spend one hour and end up spending four. You get to meet people from all over the world whom you would not have the opportunity to meet in real life. You can develop your "avatar" or virtual persona to look however you want it to. (Most of us look like descendants of Barbie and Ken and are in our 20s.) 

With all these challenges, response to library services, programs and exhibits has been overwhelming. Traffic on the Info Archipelago is an average of 5,000 people per day. The library attracts not only librarians, but also computer programmers, retired individuals, teachers and many others. The possibilities for using Second Life as an education tool, with exciting immersive environments that engage the learner through exhibits, reenactments and multimedia, seem endless. 

The number and variety of participants in this project has been wonderful, but we need to develop a sustainable model, perhaps with paid staff plus volunteers, or possibly engage collaborating institutions in working together to provide regular staffing to keep services going. If you would like to join us in this exciting adventure, please contact Lori Bell at lbell927@gmail.com or instant message Lorelei Junot in world. Come for a tour, or join the email group to experience and discuss the project and explore how it can fit in with your organization's use of Web-3D.