Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Second Life and Libraries

There's been a lot of really big buzz around Second Life in the library world. Lots of libraries have electronic presences in SL -- University of Cincinnati, the state libraries of Kansas and Michigan, a huge presence from these guys -- they were the first, as far as I can tell. It's getting a lot of non-library related press as well; both from news sources and blogs. And it's not just hippie librarian types or bored techies, there are actual, real businesses buying land and doing things all over SL. People who are into SL are really, really, into SL, to the point where they wax rhapsodic about new worlds, completely new social interactions, new economies, new ways of doing business. They feel as though they are on the cusp of something big, something world-transforming. Hell, SL has even had its share of disasters -- including their very own "Napster Moment".

Does this sound familiar?

"ITS POPULATION IS AROUND 8,500. IT has private nooks and corners as well as very public gathering spots. Though small by any demographer's standards, this place has seen more than its share of civic crises. Undesirables and miscreants wreak havoc. There are wild hot-tub parties and heated debates over whether a fellow citizen should be allowed to exist. People are teleported to other places against their will. Some men pose as women, some women pose as neuter aliens."

Okay, ignoring the "population is about 8500" -- SL's population is way more than that currently -- this sounds a lot like Second Life, right? How about this?

"Truly wacky: Programming on the ---, or "building," can be done by any player. Building includes creating new rooms, linking rooms and creating objects. One player, for instance, whose character is Kilik, a Frisbee-chasing black Labrador, programmed a lavish fireworks display last July 4. Another player began to build a Rube Goldberg device. Others added levers and doors to the machine until it became a truly wacky contraption, complete with blaring trumpets and lemmings in search of high ground. When a virtual version of Mel Torme appeared, the Rube Goldberg contraption carried out a rather brutal execution of the crooner."

These two excerpts are from 1994 -- it's in Newsweek's 11/7/94 issue, and if you've got a big collection of old Newsweeks or live near a dentist's office, you can go and look at the article yourself -- it's in the one that's got a big picture of Ollie North on the cover. At any rate, all this virtual hullabaloo is about LambdaMOO, once the text-only darling of the early Internet cognoscenti and now more or less consigned to the dustbin of Internet history, although it does still exist and does retain a certain hardcore following. But the point here is that when I hear the hype about SL -- especially when its couched in the futuro-language of the true believer -- I get serious, heavy deja vu.

To be sure, there's differences between SL and Lambda -- SL is very graphical, Lambda isn't, SL allows users to retain copyright over their in-world creations (this is the one thing that I think is really, truly innovative about SL), Lambda never had to think about that. But Lambda's lessons can probably be applied to Second Life -- a virtual world that showed early promise, but didn't really deliver.

Before I get hatemail, there are some things I really like about SL -- someone in SL once steered me towards an in-world museum dedicated to space exploration, where models of rockets were on display and one could take a virtual rocket journey into space and around the planets -- very cool stuff. For the visual, the concrete -- making objects and virtual buildings -- SL is exciting as all hell. I'd really love to see a virtual model of my own university in SL, so that potential students, staff or faculty could get a feel for the structure of the place before they'd come and visit. But that would take serious time and cash, and I don't know of any institution that's made a model of its physical campus in SL.

But for libraries, I can't really see this going anywhere. See, the point of a library isn't the physical space or any of the other things that I think SL is good at; it's getting warm bodies (or, in this case, digital representations of warm bodies) interacting and asking questions. And in all my noodling about in SL's library related areas, I have yet to see an actual reference transaction from an actual civilian patron actually happen. I see lots of reference desks and lots of librarians and other interested parties hanging around, but I don't really see any movement. I've asked on an SL library related mailing list if anyone had any statistics as to reference transactions, and nobody replied to me. My guess is there aren't any.

I'd love to be proven wrong on this -- I'd love to see SL become a vibrant, fruitful avenue for patrons to interact with librarians. Anything that brings in patrons is good. I just don't really see it happening.

One last quote from that Newsweek article:

"Players go to great lengths to create their characters--female, male or neuter, centaur or mermaid. "Whether you're short or tall, fat or thin, black or white, ugly or beautiful in real life, what determines how you look on Lambda is completely controllable," says John Fink, a 21-year-old senior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "The anonymity also provides people with a sense of invulnerability."

Now just where did they get that handsome fellow?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

FYI, Bryn Mawr College has a partial rendering of the campus in SL built by summer interns a couple of years ago.

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