Archives in the Virtual World: An Experiment

August 7, 2009

The other day I had a fascinating experience. I a) visited the virtual world called Second Life (SL) for the first time, and b) visited the virtual archives of Stanford University. (Please pardon me if I get a few of the actual relationships and titles confused, e.g. who is an archivist as opposed to special collections librarian, dividing lines between the archives and special collections in their situation. I was there on my lunch hour, part of which was used generating my online entity, or avatar, and did not actually have time to ask enough questions.)

I was most impressed by the archives set-up. Besides the exhibits that I saw on the way in which I later learned were old exhibits from special collection that had been retired, the archives room itself was a representation of closed stacks with document boxes that had been photographed from the outside and inside to add realism. The “patron” could click on the documents and a representation would enlarge on the screen, giving some details about the image and providing a link for more. It was essentially a digital catalog, such as many institutions use, but with a virtual world interface.

What impressed me about this were several things. First, it seems a new and interesting way to both provide access and outreach, a good way to introduce students and other visitors to what closed stack material is like. I understand that many younger folk (I’m approaching 50) are into graphic video games and they are, of course familiar with virtual representations of real world objects. Stanford apparently has some SL activity on its campus, so suggesting a trip to the archives as an educational tool is one way to conduct outreach. I have been told that many younger folk are not into SL because it is not a “game” and they don’t see the point in just hanging out there when they could be gaming, but I have met others who like meeting in relative anonymity and are quite comfortable being there. I have spoken with people closer to my age that have attended or taught classes, (most of my geek friends said they had to attend classes as part of their computer or continuing education courses, but I know several who chose SL deliberately,) attend concerts, go there for entertainment, and even some who have held business meetings there instead of through audio/video conferencing. I was once directed by a prospective merchant to either visit their catalog of real life merchandise online to see images, or in SL to pick-up and examine the items.

Second, I was impressed with the very idea that the folks at Stanford were stepping outside the norms of the profession and appeared, at least to me, to be extending their reach out to users and potential users of their collections through SL. I live 2/3 or more the distanced across the country from them and yet I was there interacting with the archivist, (er, virtual archivist,) asking questions, looking around. The most important part of this to me was that the folks at Stanford seemed to invite and welcome me, and the SL environment was a representative (I won’t say virtual) part of that attitude as well as a real point of access. I hope that SL improves their reference services, but if it does not, it will teach them much about how they can best reach out to researchers and future researchers. (Note: I think I mention elsewhere in posts on this blog that I spent many years on the other side of the counter as a researcher, and my perceived attitude towards the role of use and users among archivists was a big part of why I chose that profession. I also think I have mentioned that I am amazed at the fact that in my world the same people who put barriers in the way of researchers have decried the lack of support, financial and otherwise, from the community that they have failed to invite and support in their own right. And yes, I do like and probably over use parenthetical comments.)

Finally, for now, anyway, I was pleased at the ease of access. Yes I had a dickens of a time getting use to navigating my avatar, particularly since I was on a tight schedule and didn’t have the time to use tutorials or ask for help. I have never been a gamer and am not very coordinated in real life. Still, I made it fine in spite of those obstacles. The registration, software download and generation of an avatar took only a short period of time. If I had not used a generic avatar and wanted to spend time customizing it, it would have taken more time, but as it was the whole thing was pretty easy. I suspect that we are not too far from software that will generate one automatically from a Webcam image and deposit it not only in SL but other virtual platforms (Multi User Virtual Environments, or some similar thing) that might arise. Things will be easier, not more difficult, and cheaper as well. The ability to offer access to people in a different way, even people with disabilities, is coming quickly should we wish to participate.

All this goes to say that Second Life, whether it is a dominant force in our culture or not, is at least a significant part of that culture, or contains elements of that culture with which many are familiar. Although I have been told by several folks in the LIS/Archives profession that SL has passed the “tipping point,” I have heard more and read more about it in the past few months than the past few years (which is how long it has been around.) Marketing and business folk are talking about it. They often see it not so much as a stand alone phenomenon but as part of a whole package of both technologies and attitudes that must be taken into account and may be taken advantage of. I think that virtual computer interfaces for online actions and services, including doing business, providing access to archives or presenting research, are becoming more sophisticated and common. Second Life is a great way for people to get their feet wet in these technologies. It costs nothing to start and there are many folks around to help you along. Stanford is a good place to look.

Should you visit them, please note they do not have the staff to keep an on-line archivist in SL. I went during their open house. Should you see this before the date, I have been told they will try to have another one on August 20, 2009. If I am mistaken, I apologize.

One last thing I would suggest we remember. It is not necessary as archivists for us to all become “techies,” as one of my friends puts it. It is not even necessary that we embrace this technology or the attitudes and culture that spawned it. It might, however, behoove us to try to understand it just a bit. We do not have to immerse ourselves in it anymore than I have to go work for the Department of Corrections (or become a prisoner) in order to process their collections. I do have to know something about the structure of the organization and the methods used to create the records. If it is part of our culture, if people do use it as a tool for their human activity, we ignore it deliberately only if we have chosen to not document this culture and this activity. We may do that, of course, but can we do so ethically?. History is full of areas where we decry the absence of documentation. But please, if we choose to decide what is appropriate to document and what is not based on our own feelings and beliefs, let us also stop lamenting the absence of records on past aspects of culture that folk in the past thought too unimportant to document.

Hat tip to Archives Next. I was looking at Kate’s site and noticed the post ( ) about the open house at SL on the morning when it was to be held. Lucky timing.

I will also note that archivist Mattie Taormina was a great help and communicated her views ant those of her institution in a most courteous and helpful manner.

Also, the folks at Stanford posted the address of the island in SL: If you are unfamiliar with SL, the starting place appears to be:

The Heretic


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