The dog days of August 2007 may be remembered as that magic moment when librarianship as practiced in Second Life finally received permission to dine at the adults' table.
On August 3rd the Library of Congress announced a new initiative -- Preserving Creative America. They made eight grant awards totally $2.15 million "...to address the long-term preservation of creative content in digital form." The creative content being targeted includes the usual suspects, such as digitally created motion pictures, digital music, and digital photographs, but it also includes comic strips (Doonesbury) and editorial cartoons (Pat Oliphant) -- which I assume were not born digital, but perhaps I'm just revealing my quaint, old-fashioned notions of how cartoons are drawn these days.
The real kicker, however, is a grant made to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Here's what the press release states, "The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games, electronic literature and Second Life, an interactive multiplayer game."
I'm still pinching myself. The Library of Congress has funded a project by UIUC and its partner organizations (Stanford, Rochester Institute of Technology, Linden Lab, and the University of Maryland) to study, among other things, how to create metadata standards and preservation practices for Second Life.
But wait, there's more. Maybe I'm suffering from heat stroke. Also this month the National Science Foundation has announced that is has funded a project to create a more accessible interface to Second Life. Eelke Folmer, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Nevada-Reno, will be leading that project, which should conclude by next August.
Metadata, preservation, accessibility: These are definitely topics for the adult table. So, let's break open a bottle of champaigne and raise a toast to the coming of age of librarianship in Second Life. If you're in-world and raising a virtual glass of champagne, neither you nor your avatar will intake any calories or alcohol, so neither of you will gain weight and both will be able to continue operating heavy machinery.
All of this is great news, but I hope the undertaking of these mainstream projects will not distract us inordinately from what I consider to be the primary promise of librarianship in Second Life and other virtual worlds -- to wit, immersive three-dimensional information experiences.
Until three-dimensional virtual worlds came into existence, most human interaction with information was two-dimensional. Nearly all interaction with printed information is two-dimensional. Screens of various types (the canvas of a painting, a motion-picture screen, a TV screen, and a computer screen) can give the viewer a sense of depth, but rarely have we utilized that virtual sense of depth to create immersive three-dimensional information experiences.
Second Life and virtual worlds in general may inaugurate a long revolution whereby human beings increasingly come to interact with information in immersive three-dimensional spaces. The molecules and works of art in Second Life you can fly around and through now are just the harbingers of things to come. Recreations of entire civilizations in an historical period, such as what Caledon does for the Victorian era and what Renaissance Island does for Elizabethan England, are fast becoming massively multi-disciplinary areas where avatars are interacting with an entire environment, not just a series of discrete digital objects.
So, as we toast the mainstreaming of virtual world librarianship, let's not forget the uncharted frontiers that also need attention, effort, and institutional support. One such frontier is the effort to explore the potential of massively interdisciplinary, 3-dimensional information experiences, or MI3DIE for short, which I would pronouce like "my three die."