Armed with this information I interviewed a longtime reference librarian from a local-area public library that currently serves a population base of roughly 15,000 and saw approximately 230,000 through its doors in 2012. And Instead of addressing the use of SL in today’s public libraries, we talked about the why nots, the possibilities, and SL’s rise and disappearance from the library field. The interview lastly no more than an half an hour, and what follows are the questions that were asked and a summary of the answers given.
Q: Outside email, very few Public Libraries, including your particular library, utilize virtual reference tools, such as chat, IM, text, or video. In your role as a public reference librarian, why do you suppose this is?
A: This is definitely something that has been talked about and that is being looked into, but because the desk is not always staffed, there is a real fear of creating non-trust between library staff and the patrons, who wouldn’t know if someone would be there to answer their questions or not. The librarian I interviewed recognized there was an underserved population that could be reached with virtual tools and the library has discussed using such tools as Meebo or Facebook at the reference desk; but for now the lack of staff is a major obstacle that would need to be dealt with first.
Q: Have you ever heard of Second Life Virtual World? Have you ever participated in Second Life or any other immersive virtual platform?
A: Before our interview she had never heard of SL, but prior to my arrival went to the SL site [http://secondlife.com/] and created an avatar in order to play around with it. It was described as an interesting experience. In terms of ever participating in an immersive virtual platform, she was at first unsure but was able to draw out similar experiences with video games, like World of Warcraft, and a popular online game called “Words with Friends”. We agreed there was a certain attraction to participating in an immersive, virtual world.
Q: So, according to my research, in 2007 over forty libraries, including at least eight public libraries and the ALA, had a presence on Second Life in the Information Archipelago, which consisted of different Info Islands and Cybrary Cities. Here, librarians would answer reference questions and host discussions, lectures, and other community event. ALA closed their Info Island in 2012 and none of the aforementioned public libraries mention “second life” on their websites, an indication that this service is no longer available.
What do you think was the library’s initial attraction?
A: It was believed that the initial attraction evolved because SL was a different way to reach out to those who weren’t coming to the library. Also, as librarians, we like to try new things. Librarians were one of the first people to embrace new technologies, like Facebook and Twitter, and find space for them within the library infrastructure.
Why do you think it didn’t work?
A: Maybe because the patrons just weren’t interested. They don’t need us as much as they used to in order get what they want. The technology itself can also be very hard to work with; using SL at a reference desk involves a high level of multitasking, between navigating your avatar and answering questions, and you can easily get bogged down. Also, marketing could have been an issue. Are libraries getting their information out there? I loved the way she put it: “You can’t start it and let it go.” Public Libraries have to be aware that they are competing with other venues, even other libraries for their patron’s attention. The librarian in question spoke of a need for strong-leadership, pointing to the fact that at their library the Library Director was very business-minded, so can think in terms of marketing strategies and bottom-lines.
And, is it the librarians’ responsibility to follow every fad in order to reach their targeted audience?
A: It is the librarians’ job to be aware of new technological fads, like Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and to know whether they are needed in their libraries or not. Librarians can always use these platforms to get ideas about programming and to see what’s out there. And ultimately it doesn’t have to have a big presence, like the library home page or front-end patron interface, but can serve as an important form of communication, whether it’s a Facebook page or a back-end way for employees to communicate and share with one another. For example, this particular library has an internal blog through WordPress that serves as a communication board so all employees are aware of what’s happening, from the major events to the light-hearted.
Q: Is there a place in libraries or reference services for this type of immersive, virtual platform, especially geared toward teens and young adults?
A: There is definitely still a place for these types of immersive, virtual platforms in our public libraries, but not for older patrons. It would be a good thing for the teen librarian to investigate as a great platform for teen book groups. Take World of Warcraft, teens could hold book readings or discussions as different characters within the game, to be that character while discussing the book. Maybe in the next 20 years we will even see a resurge of SL in the library field, at which time we might be questioning the limitations of user privacy. With all this technology invading the library we have to ask ourselves is access becoming easier? Are we ending our patron base – those people who actually come to the physical library? Are we making ourselves obsolete?
To which I say: all great questions, but ultimately, only time and technology will tell…