Remediating cultural services in Second Life: The case of Info Island DK
First Monday

Remediating cultural services in Second Life: The case of Info Island DK



Abstract
In 2007, Info Island DK was created as a virtual library in Second Life. This is an account of how library services of the physical library and the net library were remediated into a 3–D virtual world. The Info Island DK library was not widely adopted by any of the intended target groups, even if it was quite successful as demo–project. This paper discusses the factors conditioning the relative non–adoption of the new technology.

Contents

Introduction
The task
The island and its structures
The role of the library and the librarians
Library cultural services
Library information services
Integrating the physical and the virtual library
Info Island DK as innovation
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The library as an institution has done exceptionally well in adapting and expanding its services in the networked society. Rather than being a challenge to the conventional library, the Internet has made it possible to supplement the physical library by adding unprecedented accessibility to catalogues and to electronic versions of journals and books.

Given the success of the virtual library on the Internet, experimenting with libraries in the new medium of 3–D virtual worlds has been an obvious choice, and in 2006 libraries began establishing themselves in the virtual world Second Life (Bell, et al., 2007; Bell, et al., 2008). In this virtual world, a particular section known as the Information Archipelago is densely populated by libraries, schools and universities. Info Island DK, which is the virtual library discussed in this paper, is one of them. At the time of study (Spring 2008), it was located near the centre of the archipelago (http://slurl.com/secondlife/Info%20Island%20DK/128/128/0; accessed 7 October 2008).

As a project, Info Island DK was successful in reaching the goals that had been set for this particular virtual library. As a virtual library, however, it was not widely adopted by library professionals and the general audience. This paper first examines how the Info Island DK project went about remediating in a 3–D virtual world the various services of the physical library and the net library. Next it attempts to uncover the main reasons for the relative non–adoption of the Danish virtual library. This latter analysis is carried out on the basis of the perceived attributes of innovations that to a large extent condition adoption (Rogers, 2003).

Info Island DK was a public library project, subsidized by the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media. It ran from March through December 2007 and involved some 20 employees from six Danish public libraries. A final report on the project is available in Danish (Barlach, 2008a) as is a brief evaluation (Gotved, 2008), and a short video has been published as a visual record of the experiment (Barlach and Larsen, 2008). In addition, Flickr provides more than a hundred images of the island and the activities carried out there (tag: Info Island DK). The present paper, elaborating on a preliminary study in Danish (Heilesen, 2008), is based on the final project report, available project documents, and interviews with the project owner, the project manager, eight project members who assumed an active role in the project, and a volunteer Second Life designer who helped the librarians construct objects for their island. Below, quotes from the interviews have been anonymized, using a fictive first name for the informants.

 

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The task

The overall aim of the Info Island DK project was to create a national Formidlingshus (roughly: Dissemination Building) in Second Life, where libraries (as driving forces) could interact with users. The virtual library building was supposed to be manned by staff drawn from various public libraries. It was to provide a framework for exhibitions and events, and it was to be the setting for networking between library staff and relevant partners as well as for instructing librarians and members of the general public in the use of Second Life. It was also intended to be a showcase for the libraries’ Internet services, i.e., online catalogues, music services, the children’s net library, public service Web sites, and more.

It was an ambitious plan, even more so considering the limited life span of the project (less than one year) and the very modest experience with virtual worlds that the various project members brought to the project. It was also a somewhat conventional plan for building a new library from prims (geometric primitives) rather than bricks and mortar. The services envisioned were all familiar from the physical library and the net library, and the project proposal was so explicit in enumerating the objectives that it read more like a job specification more than an invitation to experiment with a new technology.

The point of view that the project was one of implementation rather than experimentation and user driven innovation, is reinforced by a log from a project meeting held before the launch of the island. On this occasion, the project owner wanted to arrange duties “so that you know who does what.” Within this framework, however, the project members did manage to experiment with various uses of the virtual library, learning by doing what library functions work well, or less so, in the new medium. Before turning to their experiences, it is necessary first to introduce the setting.

 

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The island and its structures

From the outset, Info Island DK was considered to be a planning and designing task no different from a conventional real world project. It included a model of a complete physical library structure designed by professional architects and erected in Second Life by professional programmers. The site consisted of three small islands connected by bridges (in one corner there was an uninhabited fourth islet belonging to the programmer). Originally, only one of the islands contained a structure, a handsome two–storey Dissemination Building (Formidlingshuset) with a large open space for activities on the ground floor, and conference rooms and an exhibition hall on the first floor. In the centre of the building was located a circular open–air auditorium where most of the events took place. South of this eye–shaped island there was an arrival platform, to the east of which was a Playground Island, i.e., a sandbox where visitors were allowed to build, and to the west there was an island later turned over to a Norwegian library, but originally intended as Infotainment Island. Below sea level an elaborate system of tunnels was constructed. This maze of exotic rooms and objects was not officially part of the library. It was the result of a leisure–time project carried out by the programmer and the volunteer designer. But one of the rooms, named Ames’ Bar, because of its pleasant, informal atmosphere became the regular off–duty meeting place for the project members.

The Dissemination Building was furnished much like any other modern public building with chairs, sofas and benches, oversized pillows for sitting, tables, a library counter at the entrance, and various paraphernalia such as lamps, fruit bowls, plants, coffee pots, etc. But there were also numerous objects with library functions. They included signposts with links to information in–world or on the Web, and models of books linking to book reviews or podcasts. Nearly all of the objects referring to content were created by the non–librarian project volunteer who worked on the project mostly in her spare time. Project members would submit ideas and requests either to her directly or through the project manager, and in the actual design of objects the volunteer designer had quite free hands.

 

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The role of the library and the librarians

In order fully to appreciate the activities on Info Island DK, it is necessary briefly to dwell on the understanding of the library institution and the self–understanding of the librarians tasked with running the virtual library.

As noted earlier, in the Internet era libraries have managed to create many new services that facilitate access to catalogues and materials. But the net also poses challenges to the library. One major challenge is the loss of the near–monopoly on cultural services. As one informant expresses it:

“The library is not necessarily the first choice of people in need of particular information or looking for a cultural experience. There are lots of other places they can go on the net … . On the net, at least, we are no longer the gateway to all the knowledge in the world, and to experiences. We are one small place among incredibly many places that the public makes use of.” (Deidre)

On the face of it, the virtual world library offered some opportunities for promoting library services. Thus firstly, by presenting the various online services graphically in a single, coherent environment, it was possible to make highly visible some of the important services that normally are little noticed by the public, even if they are widely used. Secondly, by being pioneers in virtual worlds, the libraries would be able to continue playing a role as providers of knowledge about new technologies — leadership in the field having been established firmly by the highly successful introduction to the general public of the Internet and World Wide Web. Thirdly, it was expected, or at least hoped for, that Info Island DK, would become the natural “home” for Danish avatars in Second Life, thus providing the libraries with the kind of gatekeeper authority in virtual life that more or less has been lost in real life. And finally, by adopting an avant garde technology with some similarity to online games, it was hoped that Info Island DK might attract young people, a target group that conventional libraries seem to be loosing contact with. This last argument is strange, considering that that nearly two thirds of Second Life users are between age 25 and 44, an and that only one user in six is between 18 and 24 (Linden Lab, 2008). Note that registration information about age (minimum age 18) was not verified by Linden Lab.

The relative loss of influence that the libraries have experienced with the advent of the user–empowering Internet seems to be somewhat painful to the professionals who as librarians have been trained to be cadres in general education. Typically:

“It is important that we know something about what goes on in the world. We would like to be one step ahead of the users … . As a librarian you are a perfectionist. One really has to vouch for what one says. Everything you say must be well–authenticated.” (Anne)

Also, when describing their role as librarians in Second Life, all informants used the word “guide”. It even appeared on the official Info Island DK avatar staff t–shirt. Acting as guides with detailed knowledge about interesting places in Second Life, the project members could assert themselves as authorities, as “official avatars”, as some interpret their virtual representation. Being a professional endows the avatar with status, some claimed:

“It may add a certain respect that you are a library avatar in–world. Libraries have a good image. Physical libraries have a good image. The idea of the library sends a good signal. And sometimes you actually sense it, that you bring in–world a respect for it, and curiosity about too, of course.” (Deidre)

However, an interesting outcome of the Info Island DK project was that it gave participants a chance to experiment with, and reflect upon, the conventional role of the librarian as an authority. Virtual worlds are collaborative environments, and when acting in–world, people seem to be less inhibited by social conventions than they would be in real life. Project members experienced this breakdown of barriers as a challenge, both in a positive and in a somewhat negative sense.

As an example of the former, it has been a novel and quite fascinating experience that rather than being transmitted to the user, knowledge may be constructed in a collaborative process where the librarian assumes the role of an ordinary participant rather than an authority:

“I have been over to one of the American libraries a few times … and maybe you will ask the American librarian: ‘Do you know anything about Amazon.com‘s Second Life search engine?’ But it is just as much the other avatars being present. Then, one of them says: ‘I know a bit about it’. Well, OK, suddenly we have a sharing of knowledge and experiences, and other avatars chip in and contribute. We are all on the same level … . The other avatars contribute just as much … and it probably would not happen in quite the same way in the physical library. If you walk up to the reference desk and ask a question, it is unlikely that two or three other library users will say: ‘Hey, I know that. Let me tell you …’.” (Deidre)

Facilitation of a real–time and immersive virtual environment for collaboration is indeed one of the key qualities of virtual worlds. And as suggested by the quote above, it may be used not only for developing new ways of negotiating meaning in in–world communication, but also for simulating real–life interaction, providing a semi–anonymous and safe setting for experimenting with and reflecting upon professional and cultural conventions.

The negative aspects equally have to do with redefining roles and challenging norms and conventions. They surface when the informants are talking about events involving many users, such as a meeting with an author. The virtual environment clearly provides an informal framework:

“I think that many of those sitting in the audience at an author meeting in the [physical] library are afraid to ask questions. They do not want to appear stupid … . But here, it is as if there is a filter or a curtain … . Some sort of freeing of your personality occurs.” (Barbara)

On the other hand, the informality greatly reduced the authority of the librarian acting as a host, and on some occasions the real–life sense of decorum was severely challenged:

“Actually, there was a lively debate. It was close to becoming annoying … . I remember one individual in particular whom I thought asked questions that were if not tactless then at least quite critical as to why at all he had written a novel on this subject. Now, she ‘really did not care to read more books about abuse’. I have never experienced anything like that when hosting a real–life meeting with an author.” (Anne)

 

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Library cultural services

The cultural services offered at Info Island DK included static exhibitions of art, and interactive events such as the meet–the–author events mentioned above, book discussions, guided tours in Second Life, a lecture, a concert, and some hands–on workshops instructing users on how to build in the virtual world. Attendance at these events was somewhat sporadic, ranging from about 15 participating in the author events and down to five going on the guided tours. Some of the participants were colleagues, others were Second Life residents out to have a social experience:

“I think that they were interested in Second Life. And it was to get some kind of experience, social experience together with other avatars. I do not think they were particularly interested in literature.” (Barbara)

There is no harm in attracting an audience that normally would not attend literary events. But viewed in the light of general education, the turnout was problematic. The immediate reasons for the poor showing were partly practical, partly circumstantial. As to the former, at the time there were only about 3.000 registered Danish Second Life users, so the target group for cultural events taking place in an exotic European language was small, smaller still if you consider that most of these users were not primarily in Second Life for the cultural services offered in Danish. Attracting new users at short notice was (and remains) nearly impossible because it requires time and effort to download and install the virtual world software, and to learn how to navigate the virtual world. Realizing this, the libraries participating in the project primarily advertised the events in–world and on the library home pages, but in most cases refrained from using the national and local media as they would normally do when advertising real–world events. One obvious conclusion to be drawn is that more than ever small language areas are at a disadvantage in the networked society.

Still, to some of the project members coming from libraries in small towns, the cultural events were quite a triumph. The virtual setting enabled them to plan and implement events on a “national” scale that would be altogether infeasible in real life. For example, inviting a popular author and drawing an audience large enough to justify the cost would be difficult in real life, but it was much less so in Second Life. Thus, the Info Island DK events helped break the sense of small–town cultural isolation and suggested new and interesting ways of interlibrary collaboration. Similarly, the virtual excursions promised means of collaborating with institutions and organisations that could not possibly be destinations for real–life visits.

As to the circumstantial problems, the Info Island DK project was seriously winged by the public discourse about Second Life. In the Spring of 2007, when the project took shape, Second Life was subject to intense hype. Companies and institutions were flocking to stake a claim in the virtual world, hardly any of them with a plan for what to do once they had entered the promised land. Disillusionment was predictable, and it set in with a vengeance in the Fall of 2007 when most Danish media pronounced Second Life dead. This was exactly the period of the most intensive work on the library project, and bad press did little to promote the project. Even colleagues seemed to start avoiding the subject, leaving the project members with little sense of support:

“[There was] much focus in the press just before [we started], and at that time it was mentioned in the lunch room: ‘So how are we doing in Second Life?’ But then, when public focus vanished, in general it also vanished among the library staff.” (Ian)

The various cultural services based upon social interaction were evaluated favourably by the project members. Audience, authors and organizers alike seem to have had a good experience. As has been generally acknowledged, being visibly and actively co–present in the virtual space allows for a kind of immersion and agency that makes the experience meaningful.

The one exception to the general contentment with Second Life as a medium for cultural services were events involving active and creative use of the virtual world. Info Island DK included a sandbox where everybody could try building objects, and one of the ambitions of the project was to introduce users to building in Second Life:

“Then we will invite newbee avatars who need not have any skills. They are simply allowed to come, and we will have it all arranged for them. So that they can learn to build in there. Because apart from being a place where first and foremost you meet others, then … the next fun thing is to create something yourself … . So we thought, now we will teach some basic building skills, because we thought that in addition to informing about the potentials of the library in the physical world, we would also act on Second Life’s own terms and guide and inform about the in–world potentials.” (Deidre)

This line of thinking assumes conditions and a development in use parallel to the introduction by the Danish libraries of the Internet and World Wide Web. Both efforts were substantial successes, and the libraries have contributed importantly to disseminating knowledge about the Internet and to mastering subjects such as searching for information, or designing Web pages. However, Second Life differs significantly from the Web in that it is far less easily accessible; in that the process involved in designing objects is more complex; and, in that the perceived communicative effect is more diffuse. Stated in plain terms: In order to get to the newbee workshop, the user will first have to download the Second Life client program, design an avatar and learn about basic navigation. At the workshop she will have to cope with unfamiliar and quite difficult graphical programming — at one of the workshops, constructing a cup of coffee turned out to be a formidable challenge that only few were able to complete. And the outcome of the exercise is likely to be a modest object that truly accentuates just how much work (and expense) is required to create your own space that will (or more likely will not) attract some of the comparatively few users of the virtual world.

Only few avatars turned up for the workshops, and eventually they were dropped. Among the participants were several librarians working on the project, and their views about building objects were divided. A few appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the virtual world, while the majority considered it to be a waste of time, arguing for a division of labour into developing ideas (librarians) and implementing them in–world (programmers). This latter point of view mirrors the commercialization of web services. Back in the 1990s, users could be expected to design their own Web pages, much like some enthusiasts had programmed their own software a decade earlier. But as Web design became the domain of professionals and grew in complexity, most users stopped bothering and turned to simpler solutions such as blogs where design is a matter of choosing a proper skin, and where the ready–made functionality has the user online and communicating in a matter of minutes (Heilesen, 2007). Open standards for virtual worlds may eventually make it possible to grab the necessary objects “off the shelf” and upload them to one’s favourite virtual world. But at the time of the Info Island DK project, designing was a major barrier for users and project members alike. Only very few of the latter did any designing themselves, and the influence of the project members on the design process remained largely indirect, as they would convey their ideas to the volunteer programmer through the project manager.

 

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Library information services

The Info Island DK project plan was quite explicit in its demands for creating a virtual library that was to offer a wide range of services available also in real life libraries as well as in the virtual libraries on World Wide Web (e.g. manning the library, arranging exhibitions and events, accessing library collections (Borgerservice og Biblioteker, 2007). In consequence, quite many signs linking to note cards and Web pages were created and a duty roster was established. In terms of interaction, it is possible to distinguish between avatar–to–avatar services and avatar–to–object services.

Info Island DK was to be manned by avatar librarians, and right up until the final weeks of the project, project members were on duty in–world at various times of the day and the week. The logging of visitors to Info Island DK is incomplete, and it gives no clue to what activities were carried out by visitors (Barlach, 2008b). But based on interviews, it would seem that few of the 80–160 weekly visitors made contact with the library avatars. When referring to their in–world duties, the informants typically expressed sentiments such as loneliness, and being frustrated about wasting time:

“When someone came by, you became quite eager. You would grab them. ‘Oh, what are you doing here?’ ‘How did you find us?’ etc. Well, it turned out that most often it was someone with a semi–professional interest, or it would be someone who had arrived by accident and left promptly when you started talking to them.” (Anne)

The “semi–professionals” referred to were mainly students and faculty from library schools and participants in a Danish version of the in–service training programme called “23 Things” (Blowers, 2008). These visitors did get an impression of Second Life and of the virtual library. But in trying to help them, the project members experienced a contradiction between being supposedly experts on Second Life and being able to offer meaningful advice:

“There were a few on my watches. And most of them were participants in 23 Things who had to come there. I do not know how much they benefited from it … . It is OK to get some idea of what Second Life is about. But in order truly to realize what Second Life is about, you need to be there for an extended period of time. And that you are not when being part of such a project unless it gets to you, of course. So, when some of them came up and said: ‘How can I use it?’ Well [laughs] It is a good question, isn’t it?” (Hannah)

After the conclusion of the project, some of the project members have reflected on their role as in–world librarians, concluding that rather than sitting on Info Island DK waiting for customers to arrive, it might have been better to be outreaching, travelling to places where Danish avatars meet in order to inform about the virtual library and answer questions.

More practical problems of handling a situation where the users are unfamiliar with the conventions of the medium occurred on the few occasions where many avatars met to learn about Second Life. The problems encountered may be transient in nature, but at the time they certainly challenged the idea of the librarian guiding the public into Second Life:

“Once we had invited a whole lot of avatars from the central library. They were participants in 23 Things in–service training. There were many of them … about 30 … and I had prepared well for showing them around the building. But it turned out to be a very difficult task because they were swarming all over the place. I did not feel that I could get their attention nor that they heard what I was saying, because they were chatting away constantly. That made it hard to figure out who was saying what to whom. They did not hear what my avatar was saying, and when I said. ‘Come over here and let me demonstrate to you’, half of them did not know how to come along. And I could hear them across the auditorium saying: ‘Where did she go?’ and ‘Now she is gone’. They could still read my text on the screen, but they could not really make sense of it, because my avatar had moved away, and for that reason our communication broke down.” (Deidre)

Avatar–to–object interaction involved clickable objects in various shapes, e.g., books, posters, laptop computers, and more. The links were either in–world to a note card (pop–up window) or a Second Life location, or they were links to the World Wide Web, or a combination of in–world and Web references. A typical note card would provide a biography of an author or a review of a book. Links to the Web would include podcasts, library sites and search engines, literary sites, and various government agencies and services.

The actual value to users of these various resources have been discussed among the project members. The links to external library and public service resources were clearly the most problematic. Why bother to enter Second Life and teleport to Info Island DK in order to search for a book title when the same transaction takes only a couple of clicks in a Web browser, some project members would ask. But to others it made sense, as they argued that having all the resources available in a single virtual space, visible to all avatars present in the virtual room facilitates collaborative work on an assignment or a project. Exhibitions of books on a special subject or by a particularly author likewise may make it possible to work collaboratively with podcasts, book excerpt and reviews. However, no examples have been found that the Info Island DK resources were actually used in this way.

In–world links were also slightly problematic in that they immediately direct the user away from the virtual library. But of course they helped fulfil the ambition of being a portal to Second Life and of guiding the user in the right direction.

 

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Integrating the physical and the virtual library

It was not a specific project task to integrate the virtual library with the physical library, and except for a few presentations of Second Life at library lectures and courses, such integration did not take place. Making Second Life available to the public in physical libraries with firewalls, various restrictions on computer use, and dated hardware posed insurmountable problems. Still, some thought was given to how the libraries would be able to utilize the medium. The most frequently heard suggestion was to stream events in Second Life and project them on a screen in the physical library. Thus, social events like lectures, meetings with authors, guided tours, and concerts would be made available to those who are not in Second Life. Even more interesting, works of art created in Second Life and existing only as 3–D images could be projected into the virtual library, presenting new art forms to the public.

 

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Info Island DK as innovation

Info Island DK was quite successful as a demonstration of how Danish libraries may establish services in a virtual world like Second Life. All project goals were reached (Gotved, 2008), and some valuable lessons were learned, albeit in a hard way. Viewed as an innovation, however, the project was more problematic, both from the point of view of concept and from the point of view of impact.

As to concept, the project was run as a conventional, top–driven implementation project, in which the users had limited influence. Here, the term “user” applies to the librarians involved in developing and running Info Island DK, to librarians as a profession, and to the general public visiting the island. At an early project meeting, the project owner stated “also, we need to assign some roles, so that you know who does what” (chat log from project meeting). This cooperative work form was accepted and practiced in so far as certain individuals and groups would be in charge of particular activities, and that other group members generally would avoid intervening. Collaborative knowledge building thus was more in evidence in the post–evaluation of events and services than in the planning of them.

The planning and implementation of events and services followed the project proposal to the letter (Borgerservice og Biblioteker, 2007), remediating (Bolter and Grusin, 1999) in a rather straightforward way services from both the physical library and the net library. However, it has been proven time and again, that services functioning well in one medium and context, will not automatically function equally well in another. Thus, by trial and error the project members arrived at the perhaps not so surprising conclusion, that Second Life is best suited for real–time interaction between individuals. Such successful interactions included meetings at the virtual library, and also, importantly, some hands–on experiments with the role of the librarian in a networked society. The reflections on these experiences may be the most valuable outcome of the project, and it points to future uses of a virtual library as a setting for simulations in the training of librarians.

To sum up: In terms of concept and implementation, Info Island DK did not present any strongly innovative ideas. Rather it represented a willingness to try out a new technology and an openness towards examining its potentials on the basis of intensive empirical work. As such, the case of Info Island DK resembles the many stories of businesses and organizations rushing in to establish a Second Life presence without really understanding the characteristics of the new medium, and later abandoning the virtual world, adding to a general disillusionment with Second Life.

Impact may be understood in terms of the diffusion of the innovation, in this case the virtual library. And the diffusion, or the lack of same, may be analysed on the basis of the perceived attributes of innovations (Rogers, 2003), being: Relative advantage (how the innovation is perceived to be an improvement), compatibility (consistency with existing experience, values and needs), complexity (perceived difficulty in understanding and using an innovation), trialability (the degree to which an innovation can be experimented with), and observability (how visible the results of an innovation are to others).

The best example of perceived relative advantage is the evaluation of online events involving cooperation across geographical boundaries and local capacity. It empowers small local libraries to participate on a national level and to offer services to local residents that would not be possible in real life. Also, meeting online and experimenting with the role of the librarian have been viewed favourably. Still, these advantages have not mattered enough to lead to adoption of the medium. At the time of writing, only two of the informants are still in Second Life. One uses it primarily for private purposes, and the other has gone on the create a major, semi–professional application (Pop Art Lab; Uriza, 2008). Most of the other project members, however, stopped using Second Life when the project ended.

During the project, the project members made some effort to disseminate knowledge about the virtual library. This was done at staff meetings, at public events, and by publishing in library journals and on library Web sites. On the whole, however, it seems to have been a rather timid effort. The introduction of colleagues to Second Life was never systematized, and both the number of public events and publications was quite limited. A strongly contributing factor was the massive anti–hype in Danish media that set in at the time when Info Island DK was ready to be introduced to other professionals and to the general public. All talk of visions and new possibilities was buried under an avalanche of often badly informed glee that the high hopes for Second Life did not hold. Now, a year after the end of the project, Danish public service television, in an particularly tasteless production, literally buried Second Life (Nielsen, 2008), and the virtual world seems to be mentioned in Danish media mostly when there is some freak story to be told. Few outside a narrow professional circle are ready to consider whether it is worthwhile to tackle a virtual world for any serious purpose.

Public discourse is of course also closely related to the problem of compatibility. As mentioned, most project members did not themselves feel a need for remaining in Second Life after the end of the project. Most of them had been appointed to the project because they were knowledgeable in ICT, and in fact several of them had established a presence in Second Life prior to the project in order to “be one step ahead of the users”. Considering also that initially the virtual library as a “portal” was perceived as adding to the authority of the librarians, the near consensus to drop Second Life, would seem to be a quite strong expression of project frustrations combined with despondency over the general discourse about Second Life.

As to their colleagues at the libraries, there was clearly neither a match in needs nor in values. “Nonsense” was a word frequently mentioned in the interviews when discussing the response of the colleagues to the Second Life library. The informants attributed the rejection to conservatism and lack of ICT skills particularly among the older librarians, and to a general aversion to engaging in anything bothersome and time–consuming. To this may be added that at the time when the project was defined, Danish libraries in general were not prepared to engage themselves in virtual world libraries. Only six out of 107 public libraries (Bibliotekernes Netguide, 2008) accepted the invitation to join the project at a time when Second Life was a really hot technology. And these libraries did not create optimal work conditions for the employees participating in the project. Insufficient recognition of Internet–based work is in fact a problem not limited to the Second Life project. In general, it remains more or less invisible to colleagues and therefore seems not enjoy as much respect as the highly visible activities carried out in the physical libraries. Also, there seems to be a limited understanding that online activities often are particularly time–consuming and taxing.

How compatible the 3–D virtual library is likely to be to the general users is a matter of conjecture. Although Second Life was very much in the media at the time of the Info Island DK project, the virtual world never attracted a large number of users. So it may not be entirely wrong to conclude that in spite of the initial media enthusiasm, at the time there was no particular need for the technology as such. Still, those who actually visited the library, especially participants in author events, seem to have been quite happy with the experience.

The most significant adoption factors are the three practical ones. All informants mention the complexity of Second Life, and this is also emphasized both in the concluding report (Barlach, 2008a) and in the evaluation (Gotved, 2008). It is generally acknowledged that there is a steep learning curve when it comes to using Second Life, and in particular building objects in the virtual world. But complexity is also notable in the technical difficulties involved in making the client program run, not to mention installing it on a library PC with strict security measures. Apart from being a bother in the daily project work, complexity may have had an impact on the informants’ understanding of Second Life as such, and it may also have dampened the motivation of colleagues for taking an interest in the virtual worlds library in the course of a busy work week. Complexity furthermore was a factor limiting activities aimed at the general public. Promotion of the project was modest, and to a large extent it was directed at those who had already established a presence in Second Life. This again affected trialability and observability.

As to trialability, Info Island DK contributed positively in a number of contexts. The very idea of creating a Danish portal to Second Life involved making the new technology easily available to the general public. The collaboration with a Norwegian library, and some Swedish library avatars participating in the LiteraTour in Library 2.0 (Nygren, 2008), and the Copenhagen University Library (Knudsen and Olsen, 2008) helped others test the technology. Also, the strategy of acting as portal, guiding users into Second Life was meant to contribute to trialability. So was the sandbox and the building workshops, allowing users and project members to try constructing objects.

On the other hand, the effect on the Danish public libraries and their users has been very limited. Some librarians, many participants in the 23 Things courses, and a number of ordinary users have visited Info Island DK. But it is not possible to determine how many of the visitors entered Second Life because of the virtual library. And by and large the public libraries as organisations stayed away, contributing little if anything to facilitating testing of the virtual library by library professionals and users.

The fairly limited number of visits to Info Island DK constitutes one aspect of low observability. Ignorance about the project outside a fairly narrow circle constitutes another, and the two are of course interdependent. As noted earlier, promotion of the virtual library was not one of the project’s strong points, and the media anti–hype that set in when eventually the project was running well made it even harder to be heard.

 

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Conclusion

There is nothing truly exceptional in the story of Info Island DK. It confirms that virtual worlds are particularly well suited for social interaction, including simulations and experiments with roles and the conventions of the physical world. It is the story of exploring the characteristics of the medium by trial and error, and there can be no doubt that the Danish libraries learned some valuable lessons. As a project in technological innovation, however, it reflects both problems with adoption, and some familiar issues in computer–mediated communication.

As to the latter, it has been shown time and again, that it is not possible to map the work routines, task, services, etc. of physical life directly into the computer medium in order to achieve improved or even unaffected results. Thus, it might have been anticipated that the physical library could not simply be remediated into a Second Life virtual library.

As to adoption, it did not occur in any of the three user groups — super user project members, library professionals, and library users in general. This is probably more due to the widespread Danish rejection of Second Life as such as a communication technology than a rejection of the specific virtual library concept. But it is not easy to distinguish the particular instantiation of a technology from the technology itself. Nor should “library” be understood as a monolithic entity. Some of the uses appear promising, and might have a chance of becoming adopted if and when the technology becomes simpler and easier to use and the discourse about virtual worlds becomes more favourable. End of article

 

About the author

Simon B. Heilesen is Associate Professor in the Institute of Communication Studies, Business and Information Technologies at Roskilde University, Denmark.
E–mail: simonhei [at] ruc [dot] dk

 

Acknowledgements

This paper was produced as part of the project “Sense–making strategies and the user–driven innovation in Virtual Worlds,” 2008–2011, which has received funding from The Danish Strategic Research Council, KINO Committee.

 

References

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Editorial history

Paper received 9 December 2008; accepted 10 May 2009.


Creative Commons License
“Remediating cultural services in Second Life: The case of Info Island DK” by Simon B. Heilesen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Remediating cultural services in Second Life: The case of Info Island DK
by Simon B. Heilesen.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 6 - 1 June 2009
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2315/2209





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