Thursday, April 9, 2009

Should Academic Librarians Assist in Virtual Worlds?

About a year ago I was asked by Professor Scot Headley, from our School of Edcation, to assist with a course he was preparing to teach that summer in Second Life (SL), an online 3D virtual world (VW) environment. I was honored to be asked and looked forward to the faculty/librarian collaboration. I also felt it fit my job description as Reference & Distance Services Librarian, and perfectly fit our library mission:
The mission of the George Fox University library is to support the instructional programs and research activities of the institution by providing access to recorded information in a variety of formats, and to provide instruction in the use of traditional and new information resources and technologies.

Having already been in SL for some time (mainly learning, networking for professional development purposes with other librarians/educators), I felt ready for the challenge of serving as a "SLibrarian." My prior interest/preparation stemmed from my belief that teaching & learning would continue to grow in VWs and I felt some librarians should be involved. I knew my university had already used SL for one class and thought there would eventually be more.

After meeting with the professor of the course to discuss my role and course needs, I went to work creating resources to address the information needs. I placed those resources along with a librarian office building on the skydeck George Fox University (GFU) leases from New Media Consortium.

The GFU skydeck space was ready before class started and was used for many purposes. Examples of how I assisted in my role as librarian include, helping to orient our graduate/doctoral students who were using SL for the first time by creating "how to" informational posters, attending the one hour per week inworld (inside SL) class to assist as needed, providing one-on-one help with students during inworld office hours or by appt., adding content to the course wiki, creating inworld subject guides, and meeting occasionally with the prof to discuss/assess learning outcomes related to the course assignments.

The professor and I continued to collaborate throughout the course and I learned a great deal working in the role I saw as a type of embedded librarian in Second Life. Or maybe I should say a blended librarian or a combination of both? Here is a flickr slideshow link of the class from last summer (click "show info").

This semester I was asked to teach my own SL course as an adjunct instructor for our School of Education (SOE) EDFL program. The one credit hour graduate level edtech course, "Intro to Second Life for Educators," has progressed nicely and has been quite the learning experience for all involved. This time I've really taken on two roles, one as the instructor and the other as the librarian. I created a course wiki where I link to many different types of information resources. Everything from blog posts to online news articles to shared links of searches I ran for scholarly peer reviewed articles in our Ebsco databases, and I've continued developing inworld subject guides.

As part of last week's inworld asynchronous assignment, I asked the class to watch the short YouTube video I created below on using Sloog for inworld subject guides (meaning subject guides of places in SL). (The assignment this past week was to use the Sloog website beginning with my Sloog user page in the way I describe in the video to visit Genome Island, explore and then write a reflection on our course wiki about their experience.)

(Click this link to view in larger format on YouTube site.)

Subject guide (sometimes known as resource guide, etc.) creation is seen as a fairly standard task amongst academic librarians. We create guides which include links to books in our catalogs, article databases, websites we've evaluated and feel may be useful, etc. Some librarians have also begun pointing out valuable Web 2.0 resources in their subject areas.

Virtual worlds (VW) are another platform containing new formats of information. There are over 150 VWs and their numbers are increasing rapidly. Those interested in VW growth projections can take a look at this post on Gartner's report and this site which shows large growth in the elementary school age demographic (our not too distant higher ed students).

Some virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are not only a platform in which educators can meet with students at a distance but they also contain what is often referred to as immersive builds. Below is a snapshot showing a number of these places. They are oftentimes interactive, immersive places, which have been designed and/or created by educators to assist students with their learning. As a SL librarian, who has been evaluating inworld immersive learning spaces, I am able to provide students with ways to find and access these places as an additional information resource beyond books, videos, articles and websites.

Example: Immersive Educational Builds in Second Life

For those not familiar with VWs and/or SL, this site shows some of the institutions teaching and learning in SL (this is a partial list and many who are still in the exploration stage (such as my univ) are not listed).

Now back to the title of this post and questions for any readers who happen upon it--Should academic librarians provide assistance in virtual worlds?

Does my work as a SL librarian fit the role of an academic librarian? Obviously, I believe it does. I have presented and blogged on the role of the academic librarian in virtual worlds in the past, and belong to the ACRL in SL group where I network with incredibly innovative librarians in SL. I also closely follow the work of the ALA in Second Life and have attended their events when time allows. But I'm interested in what the rest of the academic community thinks. If I'm wrong about this, please comment and tell me why.

I'm not saying every librarian should be conversant in virtual worlds. Academic libraries typically have librarians who specialize in specific areas. Does it make sense to have a librarian who is conversant and able to assist when needed by faculty teaching classes in those worlds? Might some institutions consider this an asset?

Is creating inworld subject guides a role others see as fitting for an academic librarian? Should librarians be leading in this way or should we wait until virtual worlds are more mainstream? If we wait, is there a chance our role will be filled by others such as educational technologists? (I would argue that edtechs have the skills needed to lead as administrators/creators of our institution's spaces in virtual worlds and that librarians should be the main information need providers.)

Many of the library and information science graduate schools now offer classes on virtual worlds. Do academic library directors see the value in that when making hiring decisions?

I am an early adopter of technology (though not a techie) and have learned over the years that sometimes I can be too early, and sometimes I am wrong about a trend. But, I like to think of academic librarians as trailblazers and believe we should be leaders and not afraid to take risks.
There is a digital revolution taking place and it's an exciting time to be a librarian. As we contemplate how the next five years will develop, how we prepare ourselves to remain relevant as academic librarians seems more important than ever. If our constituents are (or will be in the near future) teaching and/or learning in virtual worlds, I feel some librarians should be there.

Comments are welcome.


Diane Nahl said...

Robin Post

To Robin’s question, “Should academic librarians provide assistance in virtual worlds?” I offer the following thoughts as an LIS educator and former academic librarian.

After spending a year in Second Life learning about the libraries and librarians who work there, I decided to bring in a class of MLIS students because of the value librarians provide for users in virtual environments. It has been three years since librarians and educational institutions began creating a presence in the SL virtual environment and it is still only the beginning of the discovery and creation of virtual world librarianship.

Librarians are motivated by the ideal of bringing service to users on the users’ information grounds. SL proves to be a rich social, cultural, and technical information environment filled with information seekers. Librarians in SL are anticipating and responding to information needs in Second Life and I wanted my students to be working at the edge of a new technological shift in the information world, new ways to interact with information seekers, innovative ways to present and share information and to learn about all forms of subject matter.

There are two major forms of information needs in Second Life. Systemic information needs or questions about how the SL interface works, how to do things, where to go to learn how to create things, etc., and the other is subject information needs or questions about topics, content, culture, events, people, activities, locations where like minded people gather, etc. Both types are vast and many diverse questions arise. In the early stages of a new information system, such as when the Web started in the late 1990’s, systemic information needs predominate until at some point the new skills have permeated the population of users, and systemic information needs are surpassed by subject information needs. In SL at this time systemic information needs remain high as reflected by SL reference question statistics. This will shift as more people use virtual worlds and VWIL has penetrated society. There will always be novice users of a system, but diffusion innovation acceptance rates change over time, and librarians will be there to ease the way for new users.

Hundreds of libraries have a presence in Second Life and hundreds of librarians work there daily, creating interactive library buildings and furniture, interactive collections, and user services including reference, book talks and storytelling, live author events, photo contests, poetry slams, and many others. Virtual world librarians create and utilize a variety of interactive information sharing devices and formally and informally teach virtual world information literacy (VWIL) skills to new SL users, MLIS students, and entering librarians.

Virtual world librarianship provides ample opportunities for professional development through advancing Web 2.0 and 3.0 technology skills; extending service to virtual world users, expanding colleague networks globally; creating new collaborations; producing, and attending professional meetings, working groups, and conferences; and acquiring VWIL skills.

After attending many SL education research forums by people studying virtual worlds I learned that millions of tweens are involved in dozens of virtual worlds for play, learning, and meeting with their friends and family from a distance. I realized that innovative SL librarians are creating the services and environments where these tweens will feel comfortable working and learning, and will certainly expect their secondary and college education to have strong virtual components.

My MLIS students have worked on inworld projects with a dozen experienced SL librarians. The collaborative mentoring relationship allows students to practice virtual world professional activities with guidance as well as autonomy, much as new librarians work with supervisors and mentors. I have experienced the great benefit of collaborating with and learning form these pioneering professionals. They stand ready as resources to work with faculty in any discipline to support teaching and learning in SL. Faculty who want to use SL in teaching and research often depend on librarians because they are already in the virtual world, they have created the infrastructure and facilities needed for teaching and learning, and librarians are ready to create new things as needed. There could not be a more congenial collaboration than SL academic librarians and teaching faculty.

I am planning another course in the fall that will utilize SL and every term hereafter because SL is a superb learning, teaching, professional networking and service learning environment. Students will create inworld subject guides for users, build interactive collections, do reference service, produce professional events, create interactive information-sharing objects, displays and presentations, conduct service learning projects, and other activities that occur in physical libraries. The teaching and learning experience has been fun and rewarding for all of us, students often say they are enjoying networking experiences and the VWIL skills they have acquired.

As an LIS educator I am responsible for preparing librarians who can work with faculty, students and with emerging information technologies. I await the time in the near future when library administrators and college and university administrators value and seek information professionals with virtual world skills.

Robin Ashford said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful post, Diane.

I'm hopeful others will comment on this topic and welcome opinions on either side.

Beth said...

Hi Robin - I'm also an academic librarian involved in Second Life. I was granted a sabbatical this semester to explore SL, so my university sees it as a relevant and appropriate skill for academic librarians! I would hope library directors would see SL experience as a plus but it may still be too new. I consider it similar to web/HTML in the early 1990s – some librarians got in there early and now there is no question but that web expertise is relevant for academic librarians. I think it’s beneficial to our institutions to have librarians involved, to support other early adopters and also as leaders in exploring the potential of this new technology.

Before sabbatical, most (but not all) my SL projects were conducted on my own time, and I think there will be questions for me when I return from sabbatical about how much time our library wants me to devote to this. Do we need a full-time “Second Life librarian”? Probably not at this point. This is still a very new technology not widely in used on campus, we’re short-staffed, the budget outlook is bleak, etc. I do think a growing number of institutions would consider it an asset to have a librarian who is conversant in virtual worlds, but institutions (and individuals) are always looking at a number of factors when considering new technologies. So my short answer to your post: It’s not for everyone but it is worth doing!