Since Lorcan Dempsey’s keynote at Access 2005, a lot of us geeks have been thinking about workflow and the place of the kind of library services we’re responsible for in the workflow of our users. Dempsey recognized other relevant flows: webflow, learn-flow, and no doubt more. Services like OpenURL resolution are valuable in themselves, but potentially create much more value as part of a well-thought-out system that allows users easily to use them to incorporate library services into their own research and writing processes.
But of the flowing of flows there is no end, and the Second Life Library project challenges us to recognize and participate in flows hitherto unimagined in the library systems unit. I didn’t get it when I posted a throw-away comment last week, and I still don’t really get it, but now I think I don’t get it in a slightly more useful way, at least to me.
Lori Bell posted a friendly comment to my posting, and with a spare half-hour on Sunday evening I went back to InfoIsland to look around again. As luck would have it I stumbled into a major meeting of Second Life librarians, evaluating the first six months of the project and setting priorities for the next phase. I took a seat at the back (it took a few tries to sit facing the right way–my SL navigation skills are minimal) and listened in. I was tempted to leave when the discussion turned to signage: if participating in a sophisticated 3D online environment means attending meetings about library signage, then I’m gone, no matter how many of the participants have wings. The discussion moved on, fortunately, and I stayed to the end. Recent negative blog postings were mentioned, including mine (which I didn’t intend as negative, really, just skeptical). There was a hint of hurt feelings, and I felt I should attempt to make amends at least to the extent of thinking out a proper position.
After the group photo, I went up and talked with some of the participants, who (pace Dorothea) did not bite. I was surprised that there were more academic librarians than public librarians in the project, expecting a youth-oriented service interest, until it was pointed out that the barriers to keep predatory adults out of the teen version of Second Life make it very difficult to provide services to teens. A few of the participants have actually gone through the required background-check (in real life) that allows them into the teen world, but they can’t leave the library island there.
I asked whether there’s been much interest in the library from ordinary Second-Lifers, as opposed to other librarians. Apparently they’re not just talking to each other, and keeping stats is one of the areas they’d like to improve in the next phase. My impression is that they’re thoughtful about what they’re doing, conscious that it’s an experiment with lots of unknowns, and struggling against all the obstacles to volunteer-based projects that we’re familiar with in the open-source world: burnout, documentation, communication, etc. They face the same tendency to blur the boundaries between one’s personal and professional lives: to carry profession-oriented work into one’s hobby time and activities. I’d personally draw the line well short of a hobby activity that required me to keep reference desk stats, but that’s why I’m a geek, I guess.
So how does this relate to the kinds of online services that monopolize my professional attention these days? It’s certainly one more mashup locale where services built on open standards could be reused in ways the service-provider doesn’t have to foresee. It’s also one more online community where one meets people whose passions overlap with one’s own.
But is there now, or will there ever be, a workflow there? I don’t know. My first impression of Second Life was that it’s all about sex and shopping; but I suppose a contemporary Martian’s first impression of the web would be the same. And what if there isn’t a workflow? Perhaps my services could be relevant to a playflow–I like to think so, but then again I think OpenURLs are fun. Perhaps SOA-based library services could facilitate such noble human processes as a jokeflow, or even a folly-flow. In discussing nextgen OPACs we agree on the pleasures of serendipity, after all, which is playfulness under the guise of work. But when you go into Second Life, would you prefer to meet your librarian, your mom, or your dentist there? In our efforts to insert our services into our users’ webflow, we risk pursuing them into the places where they go to avoid us.
I don’t intend to get involved with the Second Life Library; I’ve got enough side projects and passions competing for too few leisure hours, and I know a time-sink when I see one. I’m not persuaded that this is the best use of our time: libraries have so many challenges and opportunities these days in the online world, and the resources to act on so few of them. But I’ll keep an eye on it and wish the SLLers well in their experiment.