Culture  My so-called Second Life

McGill deploys librarians into cyberspace

Given that I spend most of my time trying desperately to get my life in order, the thought of having to manage a second life makes me break out in a cold sweat. And yet that’s exactly what 15 million people world-wide do in the interactive virtual universe called Second Life.

Recently, in an effort to reach a wider range of students, the McGill Libraries bought an island on Second Life and created an information center offering direct access to librarians. This information centre is currently being advertised on the McGill Library web site. While the thought of using an avatar to visit an online world didn’t particularly intrigue me, I was curious as to why McGill would choose to open up a library specifically on Second Life. I thought I’d keep an open mind and give it a try.

My first order of business was creating an avatar. Thinking I should probably come up with some wickedly cool name, I end up with Aly Mirajkar. The only reasonably normal-looking body option available came in a hideously pink dress. Even better.

After getting used to the controls and getting a kick out of the “fly” command, it was time to explore. Opening the map, I typed in “party” and several variations of “Party Island” pop up. After several attempts resulting in my avatar bouncing off an invisible barrier surrounding a log cabin (apparently I was not welcome at this particular gathering) and dancing alone in the middle of a dance floor complete with glowing skulls and columns of flames, I still hadn’t come across any other avatar, and decided to change tactics. Hoping that “Vancouver Island” would yield better results, I typed my hometown into the map, only to be teleported into a shopping complex, once again completely vacant.

The first store I entered featured questionable bits of leather modelled by all-too-realistic looking male mannequins; the second, a wide variety of rainbow flags. Not exactly like the real Vancouver Island, granted, but this escape from reality is one of the major selling points of Second Life.

But why would McGill want to be a part of the network? In order to find out, my next stop in this strange island-world was the library and cybertheque. Surprise, surprise, there was no one to be seen. Not even a librarian. After a quick look around, I picked up my free McGill t-shirt, put it on overtop of my revolting pink dress, and decided that I’d had quite enough online fun for a good long time.

The next day, I had better luck tracking down a librarian in person. Louise O’Neill, the Associate Director of Library Technology Services, is one of the librarians involved in the Second Life project and seems to be enjoying this new method of offering library information. “It’s a bit experimental,” she says. “We’re having fun with it, trying different things. The librarians are still getting used to working in that kind of an environment. It’s very, very different, providing services for somebody who looks like a blue dragon.”

When asked why the librarians had decided to create a McGill library information centre on Second Life, O’Neill replied that McGill was not the first school to be doing something of the sort in an effort to reach library users. “There is a movement among libraries in North America to offer library services in virtual environments,” she added. “We’re past the day when we expect everybody to come to the library to get service. We like to be where our users are.” In an effort to make the library available anytime, anyplace, the librarians decided to get creative and build a virtual library.

However, the demand for such a library doesn’t seem to be very high. Aside from the lack of activity during my visit, few McGill students seem to even be aware of the school’s presence on Second Life. The librarians aren’t too worried, though. “The project is still in the early stages, so we haven’t had too much traffic, but we haven’t been advertising it too heavily either,” said O’Neill. “We have had a few visitors, [but] not all of them are from McGill, because anybody can visit us.” According to the Second Life librarians, a variety of users in need of answers seek out the McGill library, including those interested in bilingual help. “So we have had visitors, but from all over. We’re going to use it as a tool.”

If this project succeeds, McGill Libraries will be looking into other development projects on Second Life in the New Year, including access to Archives Canada. “Hopefully we’ll be in a better position to offer information services there on a regular basis. We’re also hoping to make parts of the island available to other departments.”

If a virtual information centre can succeed in bringing people to the library, it could mean that more alternative teaching methods may soon be on the way. For now, however, the librarians are simply trying to ensure that people have a good experience in the library. As O’Neill explained, “We’re having fun and we’re inviting students to have fun with us.”