If Second Life is the answer, what was the question?

28 February 2008

The Library 2.0 proponents believe that we should meet our users in whatever spaces they choose to inhabit. As you know, I only partially agree with that notion at the best of times.

But what about when that space is a notorious haven for violence, perversion, pornography and criminal activity?

Australia’s greatest exponent of Second Life in libraries is without a doubt Kathryn Greenhill, Emerging Technologies Specialist at Murdoch University Library, also known by the alias Emerald Dumont. Task 22 of the 23 Things program salutes her passion for virtual worlds by asking us to investigate Second Life and how libraries are using it.

There are a number of influential library bloggers who push for libraries’ involvement in ‘gaming’, not for play but for learning. I’ll be posting on the Swinburne Library Blog in the near future (so stay tuned!) about how Swinburne internet architecture researchers use gaming technologies to measure our CPU usage. But how many true ‘gamers’ amongst our library user population would be involved in gaming for the sake of learning? Call me old-fashioned, but I imagine most of them just want to escape from the realities of work and study life and be entertained. And that’s perfectly fine.

I love the idea that new technologies can help libraries reach users whose access has previously been limited by distance, time and/or disability. Peter Lor’s inspiring plenary at VALA2008 (PDF) pushed us to think of our libraries as politicised spaces. It’s an angle I’ve always been reluctant to accept, as I believe that our role is to provide an information service with as few barriers as possible, not to push a political agenda. Yet arguably, our anti-censorship, pro-freedom stance already places us in direct opposition to any form of government, no matter how (purportedly) democratic.

The notion of librarian as anarchist is so divorced from the popular culture concept of conservative, tweed-and-pearl-wearing shushers to be laughable. Yet anarchy actually much closer to the reality than the stereotype will ever be. Underneath the calm exterior, we librarians like to stir the pot.

IFLA (in the person of Peter Lor) encourages us to bring our politics to work with us. Lor argues that we need to become skilled manipulators of the information economy to ensure that no-one is excluded or left behind. To that end, Africa-specific table of contents service Africa Journals Online has been created to help journals published in the developing world gain international exposure. Similar projects in Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh are also underway. Contributions to the PKP support forums indicate that the development of free, open source journal hosting software allows academics from developing countries to disseminate their research both in local and worldwide spheres, free from the usual barriers of cost, distance, language, and cultural imperialist prejudice.

I’d love to think that we could use Second Life in similar ways, but it’s an unrealistic goal. Firstly, there’s a technology barrier that for the moment remains insurmountable. Dana notes that the technical specifications for Second Life require better-than-average graphics cards and fast internet connections — beyond the capabilities of most middle-class Australian households, let alone the unreliable PC access available to users in developing countries. This barrier may go some of the way towards explaining the remarkably low Second Life adoption rates in Australia (again, thanks to Dana for an excellent interpretation of the stats). On the basis of these statistics, librarians’ usual argument for participating actively in Second Life — because our users are there — is at best misguided.

Secondly, while there are no humans in Second Life — only an endless parade of impossibly beautiful avatars — it is nonetheless run by humans, and sadly we seem as incapable of creating a socialist utopia in virtual space as we are on earth. Virtual worlds have sparked considerable media and legal controversy over cases of virtual rape and paedophilia.

If we’re going to coax people out of their comfort zones and into new and exciting places, we need to be sure that they’ll be safe. With the lack of control in Second Life — which is admittedly its defining characteristic and perhaps its greatest benefit in an entertainment context — we can’t make any such promises.

Thus, I’m inclined to disagree with ‘Priceless‘ that Swinburne Library will eventually need to inhabit Second Life, because I’m (thankfully) not the only one in vehement opposition. I support those of my colleagues who think it would be more beneficial to master the real world libraries first, before trying to expand into virtual ones.

I’m afraid that for me, A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette has the final word on this:

‘Librarians should think twice before joining Second Life in an attempt to connect with patrons. Your patrons don’t want to be friends with you in real life, so it’s not likely that they’ll be interested in hanging out with your avatar.’

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