The Rise and Fall of Library Use of Second Life: What Happened to All the Libraries That Used to Be in Second Life and Other Virtual Worlds?

Back in 2008, a book was published covering the then-exciting new world of libraries usage of virtual worlds in general, and Second Life in particular.

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The book, which was titled Virtual Worlds, Real Libraries, and which perfectly captured the zeitgeist of that time, has chapter titles such as “Library, Education, and Museum Applications of Virtual Worlds for Child, Tween, and Teen Projects”, and “Rocky in Wonderland: A Librarian’s Journey Down the Second Life Rabbit Hole”.

It was truly a heady time to be a librarian involved with virtual worlds. I was one of the many librarian volunteers who worked shifts at the virtual reference desk at Info Island, fielding questions from whoever teleported in. There were dozens of public and academic libraries operating sims in Second Life and providing various services for their own users and for the general public.

The Virtual Worlds, Real Libraries book also had a colour picture section that included one photo of my librarian avatar (named Notecard Writer) attending a Virtual World Conference:

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According to a chapter in the book Teaching and Learning in Virtual Environments: Archives, Museums, and Libraries, published in 2016:

When virtual reality via virtual worlds first began trending the hype was immense and librarians flocked to Second Life (SL) and other virtual worlds to explore the potential for outreach to patrons and for education. Libraries with real-world counterparts blossomed in this virtual world, and Community Virtual Library (CVL), then known as Second Life Library 2.0, opened as the first entirely virtual working library to serve the residents of SL.

Lori Bell of Alliance Library Systems in Illinois saw the potential for libraries in virtual environments early on and founded Second Life Library 2.0 in 2006. This library has served a global public as a hybrid public, academic, and special library with no real- world library as a counterpart. Alliance Library Systems funded the early years of exploration and growth and received grants and great recognition as early adopters. Second Life Library 2.0, now known as CVL, operates solely on the contributions of patrons and through volunteer staffing. In our 10 years of serving the residents of SL we have ridden the rise and fall of the economy and of public opinion to the gradual leveling of the parabolic curve of the {Gartner] Hype Cycle, all the while bringing resources and services to the residents of SL.

A brief history will be helpful in fully understanding the function and evolution of CVL. After the founding of Second Life Library 2.0 in 2006, changes to SL’s terms of use disallowed the use of “Second Life” in any group or organization not connected to their organization, and the library’s name became Alliance Virtual Library (AVL). AVL grew from a small rental space for a single library to a complete sim with multiple sections. A sim, or simulator, is an area of virtual real estate equaling 16 acres. This was a time of great library interest in virtual worlds, and AVL experienced rapid growth in the next few years due to grants and partnerships.

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The Community Virtual Library in Second Life

Now, a decade on, libraries have a greatly diminished presence in Second Life. Indeed, it’s hard to find any libraries in SL at all, except for the infrequently-visited Community Virtual Library. What happened?

With the economic downturn during 2007–2009, many libraries with real-world counter parts began to withdraw due to tightened budgets and personnel reassignments. In 2010 the continuing economic downturn resulted in the defunding of Alliance Library System and the loss of financial support for the AVL library archipelago. AVL transferred owner ship of several sims, such as Health Info Island, Virtual Abilities, and Renaissance Island, to individual groups. Samantha Thompson, known in SL as Hypatia Dejvu; Bill Sowers, known in SL as Rocky Vallejo; and Rhonda Trueman, known in SL as Abbey Zenith formed CVL as a nonprofit educational entity in order to continue operation of the three main library islands. The CVL organization, composed of the former AVL volunteers, sustained three library sims—Info Island, Imagination Island, and Cybrary Island—through donations and rentals.

In 2011 Linden Lab discontinued the nonprofit and educational discount, essentially doubling the cost of maintaining a sim, which resulted in many nonprofits, libraries, and education institutions leaving SL.

CVL responded to the loss of the discount by downsizing to two sims and then to a single sim that combined common, multiuse spaces and rental parcels for community members. The rental covered between 40 percent and 50 percent of the sim expense. The single sim gave CVL space for a reference desk and library, social and event space, and common spaces that included two exhibit spaces and several meeting spaces. In 2014 Linden Lab restored the discount for nonprofits and educational virtual property owners, easing the need for CVL to continually raise funds. We continued with the single sim for two years, but library interest in virtual worlds had waned, and we still found the space difficult to manage with a dwindling volunteer base. CVL’s latest move is to a half- sim space on Bradley University’s sim. This is an ideal location between two long- time educational sims: Bradley University and San José State University (SJSU). This last move allowed CVL to give up management of rentals, a source of income but a drain on human resources, while retaining enough space for the library, reference, exhibits, events, and social and meeting space and still provide room for our partner group Seanchai operated by Judy Cullen, known in SL as Caledonia Skytower and by SL avatar Shandon Loring.

The ability to find, train, and keep volunteers motivated is an ongoing issue in both real- life organizations and virtual organizations. When Second Life was brand new, there was a large component of librarians from around the world who were interested in seeing how library services could be offered in this new frontier. Librarians were eager to stretch the limits of this new environment. The thrill of building immersive learning environments outweighed the effort required to become proficient in this new 3D world. Finding the time to acquire the skills to successfully navigate and explore SL and to take advantage of all of their offerings can be difficult.

There is no lack of ideas or projects, but finding people who can commit the time and energy to see those projects through can be difficult. The level of enthusiasm and dedication of those coming into SL during the glory days is hard to match. Although a small group of volunteers has been with us from the beginning, nine years is a long time to maintain the time and effort of sustaining volunteer duties. Over the years, some volunteers developed outside interests and became successful in the commercial aspects of SL or with other nonprofits. Some simply withdrew due to the economic downturn and its effects on libraries and have not returned.

Linden Lab ‘s 2011 decision to remove the nonprofit and educational discount, without any advance warning, was a particularly boneheaded move that forced many educational institutions to suspend their sims, and the decision ultimately backfired on Linden Lab and cost them a key business market they couldn’t really afford to lose. (Some institutions moved to OpenSim in response.) Linden Lab re-established the discount three years later, but the damage was done, and relatively few educational institutions have bothered to come back into Second Life. At a time of tightening budgets, virtual worlds were seen as a frill few institutions could afford.

One of the biggest problems that many libraries encountered was that (after the initial excitement and novelty wore off) these virtual library services were not terribly heavily used by Second Life avatars. Most were in SL to do things other than peruse and use libraries, thus the actual use of in-world libraries declined. The target audience wasn’t really there.

Another problem was the relatively steep learning curve to Second Life (as mentioned in the quote above), which meant that the people who were most likely to use library services were unlikely to download and install the client software, and spend 30-60 minutes learning how to navigate and teleport, simply to ask a simple reference question or read an ebook. The cost of admission was simply too high.

So, in times of ever-tightening budgets, and having gained some hard-earned experience on what does and doesn’t work in virtual worlds (mostly the latter), public and academic libraries are unlikely to jump whole-heartedly into the newer virtual worlds such s High Fidelity, Sinespace, and Sansar. There simply isn’t the money (or the time) nowadays to expand library services to platforms where there is still too steep a learning curve to participate, and still too small an audience, especially compared to the 2-billion-plus people on social media like Facebook.

It’s been somewhat sad to seem the rise and fall of library use of Second Life, but it has been instructive to participate in the cycle and learn from it. Who knows, maybe sometime in the next few decades, libraries will return to social VR and virtual worlds as the technology improves and user acceptance grows.

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