|Alexandrian Free Library: serving Victorian communities in SL|
The Alexandrian Free Library
The Alexandrian Free Library is a consortium of community-based libraries in SecondLife. Our members are libraries for virtual communities, libraries that exist only in cyberspace and do not have real life counterparts. Their collections and activities arise from, and are rooted in, the communities they serve.
The current members of Alexandrian Free Library are: The Caledon Library, The Steelhead Public Library, The Winterfell Palace Library, The Toussant L'Overture Library of New Toulouse, the R.F. Burton Library of New Babbage, and The Librarium of Abitibi. The Librarium is located on the mainland, and is a research institute about best practices for virtual world libraries. The others are all located in role-playing communities, and act as public libraries for their communities.
The Caledon Library is our largest member, and it provides an excellent example of how the collections and activities relate to the communities they serve.
The architecture of each if The Caledon Library's branches reflects the appearance and character of the area in which it is located -- for example, the Jack & Elaine Whitehorn Library, which is the main branch, is an imposing urban structure located in Victoria City, Caldedon's capitol. Other branches reflect the playful atmosphere of their communities. The H.G. Wells Library in Caledon Wellsian is mostly glass, collects material about real and imaginary travel, and features a working time machine. In the Tinyville Library of Caledon Tanglewood, everything is sized appropriatly for tiny avatars. The Regency branch collects material about science and has a formal Empire architecture that resembles a Victorian scientific association.
The collections of the Caledon Library emphasise the literature and culture of Victorian England, Steampunk and Alternative History. Their purpose is to provide information sources that residents can use to enrich their role-playing activities and their virtual lives. Their director, Sir JJ Drinkwater, is fond of saying that they Commune, Consult, Aid, Abet, and Advise the residents, both within and beyond SecondLife. The "beyond" part is quite true -- it's common for community residents to know each other outside of SecondLife, occasionally in real life but more often through other virtual media such as email, Twitter, Nings, or blogs.
What sort of activities do our libraries offer?
* Exhibits -- These make use of museum display techniques to convey information in an interesting graphical manner. Some of the recent ones at The Caledon Library have been about medieval bestiaries, Charles Dickens, the work of Ada Countess Lovelace (who was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and is often credited with inventing computer programming), and the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. They offer a wonderful opportunity to experiment with ways in which library and museum techniques can supplement and compliment each other.
* Collections -- Each member has collections that reflect the character and interests of its community. As noted above, The Caledon Library collects material about Victorian England and Steampunk. The Steelhead Public Library collects about the history and literature of the Pacific Northwest in what is now the USA. The L'Overture Library collects material about old New Orleans and the American south.
* Events -- Probably the most popular library activity. We hold book group discussions, poetry readings, writing workshops, listening sessions for Shakespearean plays, storytelling performances -- just about any intellectual activity that brings a group together to share an experience and discuss their thoughts about it. The topics are usually related to the theme of the hosting library's community, but we also co-sponsor events that are of general interest to all our members and to the greater community of SecondLife, such as our current series of discussions about SecondLife culture with anthropologist Tom Bukowski. And of course we also dance!
There a number of challenges involved in this type of library service. The hardest one is how to give our users something they can't give themselves.
Unlike the reference desk at InfoInternational, we get very few questions involving technical support. The residents of our communities are generally sophisticated computer users, often extremely so. They are also competent SecondLife users. If they have questions about SecondLife or computers, the library isn't where they go. They either know more than we do or know other people in the community who do.
We get reference questions. How did the old whalers boil down their catch? Where can I find a picture of a McClellan saddle, a ray gun, a New Orleans courtyard garden? Did they have fraternities and sororities at Oxford University during the 19th century? What would be served for Thanksgiving dinner at a home in Oregon around 1890? Why was garlic supposed to be effective against vampires?
Another challenge is trying present the image of an iconic 19th century library and still function as a modern library. All within the constraints imposed by offering library service on SecondLife, of course. We do this through a combination of creativity and compromise. The Steelhead Public Library has a lovely building that was based on a classic Carnegie Library located in Petaluma, California. The Caledon Library uses "aetheric search gizmos" that have Bucky Barkely's webmon scripts encased in steam-powered Victorian objects. Our books are mostly book objects with a scripted link to Project Gutenberg ebooks.
In addition, we need to be constantly on the lookout for evolving use patterns and new community needs. This isn't a matter of holding focus groups or passing out surveys -- we learn of these by being a part of our communities, participating in the group chat, going to community events. It's a lot like being a librarian probably used to be in real life, when our real life communities were a lot smaller and the librarian was a resident of the community where he or she worked. Our patrons are our neighbors, our friends and our partners.
The pleasures of creating and operating this type of library are many. We have a useful role within our communities. We often have the pleasure of bringing people together for exciting intellectual discussions. (I wish I could find a group in real life who enjoy spending Sunday afternoons discussing the symbolism of Little Red Riding Hood or the poetry of Lord Byron. I'm delighted to have found one here on SecondLife.)
We provide a "third place," a place away from home or work where people gather and have fun, a place where adults can play. We help people to live imaginative lives, to live creative lives, to live intellectual lives.
All of our libraries came about because the community where they are located wanted to have a library, felt their community was not complete without one. I think this says a great deal about the way people view libraries in real life--they are the intellectual center of a community, the intellectual focal point, the intellectual heart. Today when public libraries in real life often find themselves fighting for funds and forced to curtail services, I find it heartening to know that people still value libraries in this fashion.