BackTalk: Get a (Real) Life!

By Mark Y. Herring

Librarians can be an indiscriminate sort when it comes to technology. We are, or rather have become, something of a gadget-possessed profession. Whether this comes from the “image problem” that we have wrestled with since our bun-headed, finger-shushing stereotype days or merely from the nature of our technology-infested jobs is worth discussion, and I'm not the first to comment upon it.

F.W. Lancaster, who coined the phrase paperless society, has even bemoaned librarianship's “completely uncritical [acceptance] of information technologies” and began remonstrating against himself for ever having invented his now famous phrase. Last year, New York Times editorial writer Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, wrote a piece lamenting the loss of conversation in taxicabs as both he and the driver (!) were madly PDA-ing, never once speaking to each other. Against this backdrop dawns a new generation of Second Life, LibraryThing, Library 2.0, and the potential of Library 3.0.

Second living

Am I the only one who thinks the brain trust of the library profession has suffered a botched lobotomy by naming the evolution of library services after software? All we need is yet one more bean counter thinking the Internet has made libraries obsolete!

But of all those mentioned above, Second Life has the library profession atwitter. Already this year there have been at least two conferences in the Southeast where Second Life was all the rage. “Why wasn't I doing anything about this?” these conferences cross-examined. Was I a technophobe? An electronic Neanderthal? Why did my library have nothing to show for itself in this regard?

Not wanting to be the new Luddite of the age, and certainly not wanting to be associated with known Luddites, I determined to find out just what Second Life was all about. Since January, I have been on and off Second Life dozens of times. After wasting a part of my life I'll never get back, let me say that, Slurls notwithstanding, we have a fair amount of people in our profession who really need to get a life.


In Second Life, one can become everything, or rather anything, that one wants to be, so long as it isn't entirely human. In one trek to that virtual world, I met several librarians, some with green, spiked hair, others with pink or magenta hair and looking for all the world like hedgehogs with piercings. Others appeared with, well, somewhat human countenances but with added accoutrements that even genetic splicing could not unfurl. One encounter informed me that so-and-so was there to my right: “I'm the one with the pink wings.”

Libraries have since arrived on this site, complete with all the services one would expect to find in, well, a real library. Not only this, but these libraries are open all the time, there's never a squabble over policy (after all, services are virtual), but they also have every virtual thing a virtual heart could desire. Additionally, you can buy just about everything on Second Life, including imaginary land and very expensive, one-of-a-kind wines, virtual of course. I suppose, too, you can get rip-roaring virtually drunk?

The real point?

Don't get me wrong. I want to be just as ready for the coming Klingon invasion as the next library administrator. But really, what are we hoping to accomplish with Second Life?

I know that public libraries are trying to reach out to the, uh, otherworldly with ethereal services, and there is something to be said for going where the audience is. A handful of academic libraries are also present on Second Life, busily working away, reaching out to would-be gnomes and out-of-the-closet sprites. But here's a novel idea. Wouldn't all this human—let me phrase it euphemistically—ingenuity be better served if applied to real libraries?

In the real world, our profession is graying at an astonishing rate, and I'm all in favor of recruiting the under-25 crowd. But is it too rude of me to ask that we wait until they grow up? Oh, ok, just kidding...sort of. I recognize this may be an attitude of the over-40 crowd, and I am over 40. I do find, however, something rather disturbing about nearly one million people who spend countless hours living in a fantasy world and appropriating not just fake identities but multiple personalities.

Real money

We tried at my library to see what could be done with Second Life. But after our tech guru spent the better part of a week investigating, we were nowhere closer to finding a use for it, without, of course, using real money to pay for a presence in an unreal world.

I'm saying so long to Second Life, at least for now, and if our library gets passed by, well, so be it. I believe it was Simonides who counseled that when people are this wise, it's best to be otherwise. For now we'll concentrate on real services to real patrons by offering real information to their real inquiries.

Author Information
Mark Y. Herring is Dean of Library Services, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC.
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