Who’s on Second?
Do you know where your avatar is?
First, a confession: My Second Life avatar, or virtual persona, is a clueless male clad in the default ensemble of white T-shirt and blue jeans. “He” walks into trees and drops clumsily to the ground after aerial tours of the virtual terrain.
On my initial visit to Second Life, I managed to navigate my way from a meandering hillside path to a seemingly familiar place—a library. The slate building offered a temple-like quiet but also was free of books and reference staff who might have recognized that despite my ability to reach this destination, I was utterly lost.
It proved a point made to me before my Second Life initiation by Matt Gullett, emergent technology manager at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina. “A virtual world combines new kinds of literacy,” said Gullett, a proponent of connecting with teens in this kind of online venue. The possibilities for encouraging teens to develop new (and old) literacies led PLCMC staffers to opt into Teen Second Life, where, in partnership with the Alliance Library System in East Peoria, Illinois, they expect to become the first public libraries serving teens in that cyberspace venue.
Descriptions provided by PLCMC Project Director Kelly Czarnecki suggest that a much different scene greets newcomers to Eye4You Alliance Island (where the Teen Second Life Library has set up shop) than the one I experienced on the adult grid. For one, many of the users are hardly novices, having helped construct the library’s territory, which includes a brightly colored beach house where teens between the ages of 13 and 17 can hang out and listen to music. “We’re trying to get them to build this island. We’ve discovered that there’s a lot of them who love to build,” Czarnecki said. “They often teach us. They have a lot of patience.”
Young users who’ve applied to help build the Teen Second Life library have also asked for performance space, classes, and after-school programming. The latter constitutes a real challenge, since visitors might attend school anywhere in the world. “We’re working with teens that we don’t know and with teens that we do know from our library,” Czarnecki said. Adolescents locate the library via the Eye4You Alliance blog, peers in the know, and entities that promote the project.
Working with nonlibrary operations is another major aim. One partner is Random House, which will make recorded books or virtual author talks, whether via avatars or live streaming video, available.
PLCMC has owned this virtual teen space since October 2006, and those working on the project anticipate that it will open later this year. For security reasons, however, those older than 17 aren’t eligible to just drop in—regardless of how young their avatars look. The only adults allowed are volunteers who pass multiple background checks.
One such adult volunteer, Jami Schwarzwalder, said she became involved because “I think that helping teens gain skills and confidence with today’s technology will allow them to be successful adults.”
A recent library science graduate, Schwarzwalder explained, “Second Life has come very naturally to me. As a youth, the time spent playing video games and participating in online communities has helped me gain a comfort level with the technology.” She added that her Teen Second Life activity mirrors work she has done on the adult grid. “On the teen island, I assist in building the necessary structures and will work with teens to help them improve their skills in Second Life through instructional classes.”
You can learn more about teen virtual life in general at www.holymeatballs.org and Eye4You Alliance Island in particular (as well as volunteer to help out) at www.eye4youalliance.youthtech.info.