A number of CLA sessions I took in have to do with the library providing virtual services. The University of Guelph Library offers virtual reference service using both MSN chat and dedicated virtual reference software. Users can contact a reference librarian using either of these tools– in some cases they are already in the library at a computer! The research presented by the University of Guelph shows there is good usage of the virtual reference tools for directional, policy and procedure, and specific search questions. There is much less use of these tools for ready reference and research questions. MSN Chat was used because nearly all students have access to it. Those using MSN Chat tended to be less formal, while those using the Docutek Virtual Reference software tended to have more formal and detailed questions.
The instant messaging world brought to reference service a new lingo to master. The following list is a sample of what the reference librarians have to learn:
BRB – be right back
BTW – by the way
LOL – laugh out loud
KK – okay, cool
POS – parent (or prof) over shoulder
G2G – got to go
TTYL – talk to you later
The speakers concluded that virtual reference has found a spot in their library, with many students being comfortable with the service. For some students virtual reference constitutes the only contact they have had with reference librarians.
For an even more extraordinary leap into the virtual future, I attended a session on Second Life (http://secondlife.com/), the three-dimensional virtual world that is built by the participants. Users create an alternate personality, an avatar, to represent them in Second Life. Navigating this world is somewhat similar to real life, with some exceptions. Talking is done by typing, and the avatars show this with their hands held in midair typing on invisible keyboards. Avatars walk, but they can also fly or teleport themselves to other places in Second Life.
McMaster University Library has jumped into this world in a big way by providing virtual references services and access to the OPAC. McMaster has acquired a virtual space (an “island”) in Second Life, and students can go there to access library services. The virtual library can also act as a virtual meeting space. Remarkably, the growing awareness of the importance of the library as a public space has seeped into the virtual world.
Another beneficiary of Second Life is distance education. A librarian from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia discussed a pilot project in which students attended a virtual classroom. There are some technical limits to this scenario at the moment, but it was easy to see that recreating the feel of attending a real classroom is getting closer to becoming a reality.
The demographics of those who use Second Life were interesting. The average age of a user is 35, so Second Life is a destination for older, more educated people. Creating an avatar can be a liberating experience, since physical appearance or handicap is no longer a stumbling block to acceptance in this new socially interactive world. Most importantly, Second Life is what people make of it, so there appears to be endless opportunities to both recreate existing services and to create wholly new ones. The sense I got from the speakers was that the potential for library and educational services has barely been tapped, and the future holds exciting prospects.
The Library of Congress has a Declaration of Independence display in Second Life. The exhibit includes dioramas, streamed audio, text in the form of larger-than-life documents and Second Life notecards, information kiosks and even period furniture.
A virtual meeting of librarians in Second Life.