Why Second Life is a stupid place for librarians

Last week Richard Hulser presented several talks in New Zealand titled “Library Services in Second Life“. Even with the LIANZA discount, $110 struck me as too steep for a 3 hour talk.A   Especially for a topic I’m not interested in. When I tell people this, many assume that I’m not interested in technology or innovation. I am deeply interested in technology, but not technology for technology’s sake.A   We need to think critically about whether Second Life (SL) is a useful place for librarians to connect with, and serve users.

For almost all librarians SL is a waste of time.A   Not that librarians can’t enjoy SL in their leisure time, but in our capacity as information professionals I think we have better things that we can be doing like real life marketing of our core services, community development, or teaching information literacy.

In 2007 my first job out of library school was setting up a library for the Great Northern Way Campus (GNWC), a new university offering a Masters of Digital Media. GNWC used SL successfully in several ways.

First, GNWC built a virtual campus where they held virtual open house events before the physical campus was ready. This allowed prospective students to meet each other and chat with staff. SL was an good fit with a digital media program.A   It wouldn’t have fit as well if the university was focusing on Forestry, Pharmacy, or English.

Second, GNWC organized and hosted a blended reality event that took place in both real life and SL.A   William Gibson, who is also a Masters of Digital Media Advisory Committee member, read from his new book Spook Country. Faculty member Ian Verchere used Gibson’s 1984 book Neuromancer for his class. He explained that this book essentially outlined the business plan for Linden Lab. Hosting a sci fi writer, who is credited for coining the term “cyberspace”, in a virtual environment was an idea that generated good publicity. After the reading Gibson commented that in a virtual world where your appearance was only limited by your imagination, it was disappointing to see so many mainstream, normative avatars.

Third, GNWC worked with the Vancouver Police Department to host a SL recruitment event. The police said they were trying to recruit people with strong technology skills, but I think it was more of a marketing stunt. Still, it was an interesting partnership that got front page newspaper coverage for both the university and the police. Not bad for a startup university that still didn’t have a campus.

I think these were well timed, creative ways for GNWC to connect with future students, leverage some of Gibson’s fame, and generate positive publicity.A   These ideas wouldn’t work well in 2009, as they are no longer new.

Several local librarians were keen to connect and discuss librarianship in SL. Initially I was lukewarm about the idea, and over time my interest and desire to explore this reached zero. The ALA has published a technical report on SL, there has been a book published on SL and libraries, several Library Journal’s Mover and Shakers are noted for their contributions to libraries in SL, and San Jose library school has opened an campus in SL.

For most public and academic libraries this is not an economical use of resources. I’m wary of those who uncritically argue that “we need to get in the stream of our users”. As professionals we need to be careful stewards over our budgets and plan our services and programs to support our mission, vision and values.

While I’m sure it’s possible to connect with new patrons who might not be library users, or patrons who would prefer to connect with their library in SL, I think outreach in SL is almost entirely a waste of time. Especially as the economy is tanking, it is important for public libraries to refocus their services to target the most marginalized people in society and bridge the digital divide. For academic libraries, it’s important to help foster information literacy and critical thinking. I don’t see librarian presence and involvement in SL as the best way to do these things. The Working Together project has some great ideas on how to work with the community to craft relevant library services in their toolkit (PDF).

Talking to a librarian who volunteered on Info Island, she admitted most of her time was spent answering directional type questions. The “How do I get to…?” type of queries, which are the SL equivalent of “Where’s the bathroom?”.

I think it’s fantastic that there’s a librarian working in user experience at Linden Lab, but for most librarians there are better ways we can serve our users.