Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reflections on the Closing of ALA Island

Reposted | 01/15/2012

An acquaintance of mine told me about attending a presentation at Mayo Clinic's Second Life auditorium last Saturday (January 7) about a survey being conducted by a pair of Florida grad students. They are studying the relationship of first and second lives, looking for long-time residents of SL who are working professionally in virtual worlds. They have a list of kiosks facilitating the survey and I was pleasantly surprised to see one at the San Jose State University LIS sim. I was at that sim when it opened several years ago. Graduate students from their LIS program helped create ALA Island.

ALA Island in 2010 for "The Future Is Now" Conference.

When my friend asked the presenters if they had contacted any librarians in SL for help in their research, they were not aware of the prevalence of so many potential responders to their survey. This seems to be the lot of librarians, actual or virtual, that they are often an afterthought in research rather than a primary contact point. I shouldn't make too much of it, being an isolated incident. But in pondering the closing of ALA Island, I cannot help but wonder what really happened?

ALA Island Remembered

But first, let's remember some of the good times. I remember meeting with Galen Noltenius from the Washington Office on the roof of the first ALA building. Each office had a floor and egress by flight was over a tricksy balcony. The whole relationship thing struck home for me when I met Galen's operator at a DC Annual Conference. When he was struck and killed by a drunk driver several months later, it really impacted many of us in SL.

The theme for our first Banned Books Week had something to do with pirates and that was the first makeover for ALA's presence in a virtual world. I remember dancing and fireworks. Arrr! and a dandy pirate ship floating in the bay!

Then there was the design and building of ALA Island, with help from SJSU LIS students and Jeremy Kabumpo, a director at the grad school. I'd been to Epcot Center the previous winter and thought that it would be cool to use that as our blueprint, with a lake in the middle but over which we could have platforms for facilities. I didn't want to have buildings where doors were difficult maneuvering and why bother with ceilings when people could fly? The design team did a wonderful job. Librarians welcomed the presence of ALA to the InfoIsland Archipelago, which at the height of its development boasted 55 sims.

Loriene Roy, President of ALA, in her avatar form, presided over the National Library Week 2008 kickoff event. Pretty amazing.

We celebrated National Library Week in the spring and BBW in the fall, with attempts to provide support during Midwinter and Annual Conference for those who couldn't make it. We provided training for staff and had a lot of people sign up. One fellow who worked for ACRL, a division of ALA with many active members working in SL, took the whole thing as a joke. Training was during lunch hour, so it was voluntary, which set the tone for the way a lot of staff looked at SL.

And so it was always just a few of us who worked along with the dozens of librarians who are still working hard to show their institutions what kind of impact virtual librarianship can have. Take a look at the current calendar for the Community Virtual Library (CVL) and tell me this isn't amazing for a volunteer group. I saw last month that they even had an exhibit at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Faire, a terrific outreach to the larger SL community, which is a significant move toward integrating with residents. I am still humbled by these wonderful people long after I became no longer paid to care.

Young Adult author Cynthia Leitich Smith (aka Cynthia Zanzibar) gave a 2008 presentation about writing for the young adult market on the main stage. SL facilitates writers' workshops, connecting them in concrete ways across the continents.

In the fall of 2010, we reached out and had the avatars of well-known writers (Michael Stackpole, to name one) in the SL BBW Read-Off. A contest produced great videos that celebrated banned books. The following spring we facilitated "The Future Is Now" seminar that raised revenue and proved that SL activities could pay for themselves. (I felt that the registration fees were too low, which takes that ROI business even further.) But that was pretty much all she wrote. I think activity on the Island died down because the librarian members of ALA have their own places they need to support and since nobody on ALA staff besides Kay Tairov was working in SL, the Island went from being a symbol of ALA's presence to one illustrating the lack of ALA's staff's presence.

Last summer I went over the island and retrieved all of my gadgets that generated data on visits and teleported people from place to place. It was the beginning of the end, even though it was discussed as a remodeling effort. For more pictures and memories, I created a set of pages, A Pictorial History of ALA Island.

Oh, What a Shame!

If you read through the sampling of articles about the closing (see below), you can see admiration for the virtual librarian community but not enough outrage, IMHO. Many of these virtual librarians are not strongly supported by their own institutions, so it's all the more disheartening to see signs of ALA's diminished support. It's perhaps too early to know if the money that had been earmarked for paying tier is being used to help pay tier for the other virtual library sims or some other way of supporting work in SL. I am not privy to the decisions being made.

Metaverse Journal
I Live in Science Land (Be sure to read through on the comments since the post itself is divided into two topics.)

But here's what I wonder about most: for close to four years, the community of virtual librarians have been courted by ALA membership to organize and become an entity there. Becoming an entity would, among many benefits, have pressed someone on staff, besides Kay Tairov (who works in Membership), to work in SL. That could have made a difference. It still could but I am not hopeful.

I tried to talk to the ad hoc director of conference services at ALA, who is also a vice president of a company that handles exhibits for associations. The concept of virtual exhibitions may be on the bleeding edge but after an initial "your timing is right" reply from him in the fall of 2010, he soon was too busy to see me and then even too busy to reply to followup emails. ALA has a lot of members who just cannot afford to attend conferences but with a little training could attend them virtually via Second Life. The infrastructure is well-established. The cost would have been minimal and the CVL has proven over and over that they can justify ROI. This doesn't take away from the revenue generated by attendance of actual conferences but has the potential of building a desire to meet the virtual acquaintances met in SL at a future conference. Why is there such resistance to this?

There's an argument in the I live in Science Land blog about ownership of virtual properties and that using Opensim would be a better way for nonprofits to explore virtual worlds. I think they miss the point, that being the investment of money in SL isn't in the virtual objects or real estate but the relationships those objects facilitate. Please don't get me started on the economical aspects of paying tier or dedicating staff hours in SL when paper is still used to deliver information to members of ALA. The cost of producing one antiquated and useless newsletter would more than pay for a sim, and more to the point, be more efficient use of precious staff time.

ALA resisted the Web, too, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. There's a much larger issue at stake here.
Virtual membership in associations is ephemeral and easy to ignore by overworked staff. What the CVL has accomplished is exactly what is needed to wake up not only ALA but many monetarily-strapped membership associations to the value of virtuals. As the premier representative body of information experts, ALA should be leading the way and not be dragged, kicking and screaming, on this cutting edge of the information highway.

But don't take my word for it, read this excellent analysis on the future of virtual worlds in Hypergridbusiness.

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