Virtual Libraries

July 23, 2009

Ever wondered what it would be like to live in the 17th century, or to be a pioneer? With virtual libraries, it is possible to set up a virtual meeting place where students in one geographical location are able to interact with other students halfway across the world, and collaboratively create a pioneer community or re-enact a historical event. If you are not interested in interacting in a 3 dimensional world, perhaps you have always wondered about what kinds of projects students at different grade levels in your school are working on. With advancement in technology, virtual libraries enable you to have the world at your fingertips, 24/7. According to Courtney (2007), more and more people turn to the internet for their information needs and more people want to be able to access information from home. Virtual libraries are becoming a one stop shop for information.


What’s that?  

When first exploring the concept of virtual libraries, which is totally foreign to me, I found it difficult to grasp the concept of a virtual world that simulates real world interactions. Building cyber islands through Second Life was beyond anything I had ever imagined. This topic did require a lot of research and reading, just to wrap my mind around the idea of it all. One thing I was relieved to learn is that a virtual library does not have to be as complicated, costly, or time consuming as using Second Life. It simply needs to meet a loose set of criteria.

A virtual library is a library site where digital resources (in text, audio, and video formats) are created, collected, and disbursed. It is important for these libraries to have different information literacy tools and an “ask the librarian tab” in order to access the available information (Gunn, 2002). A virtual library should also showcase and enable collaboration among its users. As Borgman (2009) states, “digital libraries are constructed – collected and organized – by [and for] a community of users, and their functional capabilities support the information needs and uses of that community.” Virtual libraries are designed to meet the needs of a particular audience, and as such, the client must be carefully considered when designing a virtual library.  The functions of virtual libraries are to support “formal, informal, and professional learning”(Gunn, 2002).

 Kathryn Greenhill, author of The Unquiet Librarian, goes into detail about Information Island, a large collection of libraries in the virtual world, on Second Life. She explains how Second Life connects libraries all over the world, offers external links, tutorials, book discussions, and a multitude of collaborative learning opportunities. What a powerful means of connecting people and creating a learning community. Lamb & Johnson (2009) provide examples of the ways one teacher, Peggy Sheehy, created an island on Teen Second Life  in order to integrate technology in education and makes connections with curriculum. Librarians could encourage teachers to create these types of virtual worlds (if they have an interest and it is applicable to what they are teaching), and have these linked to the school’s virtual library. This would be one way to fulfill the social aspect of a virtual library.  

Why bother with a virtual library?

Virtual libraries provide many benefits:

1). They provide resource-based learning opportunities 24/7.

3). They usually provide more up to date information than physical collections(Gunn, 2002)

4). They are organized in such a way that make searching a variety of ways equally successful.

5). Users are able to make contributions by submitting their own work.

6). “Gartner Says 80 Percent of Active Internet Users Will Have A “Second Life” in the Virtual World by the End of 2011” (Pettey, 2007)

7). Learning through the use of virtual libraries, presents a constructivist approach to learning.

 With the aid of most virtual libraries, students are able to explore, collaborate, create an online identity, synthesize and build, promote a cause, and share with the use of social networking tools (Lim, 2009). These activities fulfill Bloom’s higher order thinking skills.

 The openness of virtual libraries provides one other benefit.  I remember previously reading that a limitation of some web 2.0 technologies (although I don’t remember where I read this, so I am unable to accurately cite this source) is the possibility of lock in.  Lock in occurs when a large number of people invest in a web 2.0 tool that does not necessarily meet their needs, but they are unable to transfer their data to another tool because of conflicting formats.  Because a variety of formats are hosted in virtual libraries, lock in can be avoided (Borgman, 2009) as the virtual library can continue to evolve in order to keep up with changing technologies.

Potential Problems?

While 3 dimensional virtual libraries using an interface like Second Life does sound like an innovative way of meeting the information needs of its users, there are some potential limitations. Second Life restricts its users according to age. One must be 18+ to use Second Life and Teen Second Life users must be between the ages of 13-17. The operation of a 3D virtual world is dependent on bandwidth, internet connection, and an expensive video card. This means inequitable access to information and services. However, I think the advancement of simpler versions of virtual libraries ( examples found at http://lib1.bmcc.cuny.edu/help/glossary.html, http://www.sdst.org/shs/library/ , and http://en.childrenslibrary.org/ ) adequately meet the needs of most users and are perhaps more accessible. Professionals are still needed to assist with information retrieval and processing, as students still need to be taught how to locate and evaluate sources. Due to the nature of virtual libraries, they require staffing 24/7 in order to meet user needs when they need it. This is costly and time consuming.

Do we measure up?

I thought I would evaluate our online library at S.I.S. to see if it meets the criteria that Joyce Valenza prescribes for a virtual library.

Our Online Elementary Library would only be slightly helpful for users who are trying to access information from home.  The library catalogue is accessible online, with links to Destiny Quest and WebPath Express to help children search for resources, both online and in print. Students are directed to the Online Secondary Library when taught how to use databases. The only sign of any kind of social activity on the elementary site is the Public Resource List tab which remains unused as I don’t believe any of the teachers know it exists. Perhaps the assumption when designing this site was that our students are neither mature enough nor do they have adequate technology literacies to justify adding social networking tools and other collaborative applications. Social bookmarking tools are not used, however, there are attached documents with links to aid in the research for one Grade 5 project, search engines, search directories, and some annotated cites for Grade 5 science fair projects. Library policies and hours of operation are clearly stated, and there is no indication that assistance is available between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.  If my understanding of virtual libraries is correct, the following changes need to be made to our library website in order to make ours a more effective virtual library:

-subscriptions to video and e-book collections

-links to online dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, and atlases.

-Links to news sources (RSS feeds, local, national, and international news

-links to open source resources

-website evaluation tools

-note-taking tools

-organizers (Bubbl.us and Free Mind)

-online collaborative writing tools (Google Docs and Celtx)

-a link to the S.I.S. technology blog

-samples of student work (Book talks, Book Trailers, and research projects)

-A link to Accelerated Reader

-A link to del.icio.us

I’m guessing these changes will take at least 2 years, as they will require the collaboration the technology coordinator and all the teachers if we intend to meet the needs of all our online library users.

My Conclusions:

I couldn’t help but think it would be pretty neat to use 3D virtual worlds to make your imagination come to life. But I really must agree that this is still in its experimental phase and should be used with caution. Without actually having ventured into Second Life, my readings of blogs have indicated that it may not be an appropriate tool for kids due to the sexual content encountered at every turn. Virtual libraries in general are an excellent tool and should be used in partnership with physical libraries, not as a replacement. With regards to the library website at my elementary school, I believe it would be wise to follow Loertscher’s (2009) advice to, “Create a virtual learning commons that replaces the old library web site/oneway stream of information that is usually ignored. [To] transform it into a giant conversation where students, teachers, parents, and the teacher-librarians are contributing to the success of the total school learning community. Demonstrate that everyone owns this place.”  I envision this happening by incorporating the use of the web2.0 tools that I am currently experimenting with. This can be achieved by implementing the suggestions mentioned above. Fischer (2009) lists the social activities that occur in virtual libraries as authoring content, rating resources, tagging, connecting between resources, and collaborating. I believe these activities can be facilitated on our library website, therefore transforming ours to a virtual library, by incorporating the use of social bookmarking tools like del.icio.us and Digg, podcasts, curriculum related photo and video sharing, and screencasts. 

 Works Cited:

1).Borgman, Christine L., (2009, June). “Digital Libraries: Now here, or nowhere?” JCDL Keynote, Austin, Texas.

2).Courtney, Nancy, (2007). LIBRARY 2.0 AND BEYOND: Innovative Technologies and Tomorrow’s User. Libraries Unlimited. Pgs.119-128.

3).Fischer, Gerhard, (2009, June). Cultures of Participation: Opportunities and Challenges for the Future of Digital Libraries. JCDL Keynote, Austin, Texax.

4).Lamb, A., &Johnson, L., (2009), “The potential, the pitfalls, and the promise of multi-user virtual environments: getting a second life.” Teacher Librarian, 36(4), 68-72, 78. Retrieved July 20, 2009, from CBCA Education. (Document ID: 1698062021).

 5).Lim, Kenneth, (2009-04). “Pedagogy, Education and Innovation in 3-D Virtual Worlds“. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. Last visited July 20, 2009. http://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/article/view/424/466. Retrieved on 2009-06-22.

6).Loertscher, D.. (2009). access to technology in transition. Teacher Librarian, 36(5), 46-47,84.  Retrieved July 22, 2009, from CBCA Education. (Document ID: 1768487981).

7).Petty, Christy (2007,04,24). “Gartner Says 80 Percent of Active Internet Users Will Have A ‘Second Life’ in the Virtual World by the End of 2011.” Gartner Newsroom. Stamford, Connetticut, viewed July 21, 2009. http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=503861+

Examples of virtual libraries:

http://lib1.bmcc.cuny.edu/help/glossary.html  http://www.sdst.org/shs/library/ 




  1. I think you really caught the spirit of Web 2.0 when you listed the enhancements that would be needed to make a more effective virtual library. I think that in addition to linking to other sites RSS feeds, a beneficial enhancement could be to make RSS feeds of your own information available. For example, the news and updates for your site could be available as an RSS feed (e.g. when your library hours change for the summer or holidays, subscribers would know automatically if they are subscribed). Some libraries have created RSS feeds that list all the new items that they get each week.

    Linking to other resources allows a small library to become much bigger in the minds of its users. The hard part is how to keep external links organized but the tools you list could really help.

    In the list of reasons of “why bother with a virtual library”, I’m curious if you own experience matches these. For example, do you find that electronic library resources are really available 24/7? Unfortunately, because I work in library IT, I have a myopic perspective on this. I see all the outages, but I’m curious to know if others percieve libraries as really being available 24/7. On the other hand, is enough to make our resources available “most of the time” and is that what we really mean when we say “24/7”?

    • Great question: are our libraries really available 24/7? Our resources and anything accessible via the internet are available 24/7, but immediate help from the teacher-librarian will never be available 24/7… at least not at our school. The closest thing we can offer to a 24/7 service is having the ability to email the tl your question, with a guarantee that you’ll receive a response within 24 hours. This is one of the reasons I find the idea of Second Life so difficult to grasp. Most islands are available 24/7, which means that people volunteer (and in rare cases are hired) to work at all hours.
      Thank you for pointing out that we need to create an RSS feed for our library. With all this work I would put in to improving the library website, it would seem a waste not to make sure that this information is accessible and advertised to all interested parties.

  2. You offer several great suggestions for your school’s virtual library. As I look at your list, I am wondering where will we get the time to build these virtual libraries? Some of my school’s library is online but there are still many hours to go yet to get what I would consider a virtual library up and operable.
    I agree with the Cloned Milkman that linking to outside resources “allows a small library to become much bigger”. That is one aspect that I know that I will need to focus on to expand my school library.

  3. It will take a lot of time, which is why it might be beneficial to ask for time at a faculty meeting to have teachers collaborate and decide what type of information and external resources they would like to see on the library website, and which resources they would like the students to have available to them. This would help with the organization of the website and ensuring that you maximize its use, as it would actually meet the needs of its user.

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