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Second Life Hype vs. Human Needs

The following commentary was posted to the PUBLIB list on 8/2/07 by John Gehner. His viewpoints are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the HHPTF or SRRT.

Librarian Charlotte Glover of the Ketchikan (Alaska) Public Library wrote the following in a letter to American Libraries (May 2007) regarding Second Life:

I’m finding it hard to believe that any youth services librarian has time to serve virtual patrons. For those who have free time, you could mentor a child through Big Brothers Big Sisters, become a reading buddy at a local school, select books for a youth detention center, volunteer at a woefully understaffed school library, raise money for First Book, or read stories at a local women’s shelter. All of these activities would have a greater impact on literacy. They might, in fact, change someone’s life instead of providing just a fun diversion.

Last year, 85% of Illinois counties experienced an increase in poverty.

I haven’t yet looked how the other 49 states compare. But it’s disappointing at times to think that some of the best and brightest information professionals are devoting their substantial talents to the denizens of a virtual world founded on leisure time rather than a real world with millions of people struggling for a Better Life every day.

I’m thankful that Jessamyn West and others keep us focused on the digital divide.

At my public library, we offer an Internet lab as well as wireless service. Well-heeled patrons who can afford laptops enjoy unlimited wi-fi usage and quick downloads.

Patrons who cannot afford laptops are limited to one hour of Internet access per day—with two extra 15 minute sessions when the lab is not busy—and are hampered by bandwidth (simultaneously shared by staff and patrons) when the lab is busy.

There are always some who insist that it isn’t our task to correct this sort of inequity and argue that anyone can obtain what they want if only they will work a little harder on their own. But substantial evidence suggests otherwise.

Unlike Karen Schneider, I don’t find it relevant at all whether there are generational differences between librarians who communicate on listservs or blogs or between two tin cans and a length of string.

What matters more to me is whether librarians—particularly the brave, brave souls who advocate so strongly for implementation of 2.0 tools—routinely seek input from library users and NON-users in their communities (and not just on technology issues).

Do we accept that, for all the supposed conversatin’, so many groups are not invited to be part of The Conversation?

Kathleen de la Pena McCook posed this question again and again with her Reference & User Services Quarterly “Community Building” column, until its end in 2006.

I simply don’t see enough people challenging the 2.0 cheerleaders to connect the platitudes about “conversation” to practical and broad community-building projects of the sort covered by McCook or underway in countries that recognize the problem of social exclusion. See, for example, Welcome to Your Library.

Annette DeFaveri writes,

Feeling unwelcome and alienated from the library is not limited to society’s most marginalized groups. For many working class adults the library is as foreign an institution as a university or museum. Even relatively well-off working class people may not have a tradition of library use and so may feel that their lives, their values, and their concerns are not reflected in the culture of the library. What they do feel is the library’s culture of authority and deference. The library is not seen as an organization that facilitates the acquisition of information or one that promotes life-long learning. For them the library’s culture mystifies information and the process of acquiring information.

I remain mystified by the volume of reporting on Second Life in the library press. In the end, what I would really like to see is the Library 2.0 equivalent of the PlayPump.


John Gehner, Coordinator
Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force – SRRT/ALA

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