It’s easy to reject Second Life as an eParticipation platform, but Birmingham City Council is just about to launch a virtual model of the planned £193m Library of Birmingham. I spoke to representatives of the Council and the company that they are working with to find out what they are doing, and how they are making the virtual library accessible to a wide audience. What I found was fascinating, and I really think Second Life deserves a second look.
Second Life is a virtual world that allows users to assume a second identity and explore a digital three-dimensional world. It’s not difficult to see how this could be used to enable people to “go” to places they wouldn’t otherwise visit, network with people from far away, or take part in virtual events. That’s the theory; but my big issue with Second Life is that it is a very niche audience and it takes quite a lot of effort to download the software and work out how to use it. Once you’re in there, it’s great to be able to look at these virtual buildings and access information; but I can view videos, read text, and chat to friends much more easily using the internet outside Second Life. So why would a city council be interested in Second Life?
Digital Birmingham, Birmingham Library service and Daden Limited (a local digital media virtual world company) have been building a virtual model of the new Library of Birmingham in Second Life. Work on the physical library started this year, but it will not be finished until 2013. In the meantime, the virtual model will show staff and citizens what the library will look like when it is finished and allow them to give their views on how the inside should look and be used. They are also exploring the possibility of providing library services to those who cannot attend in person.
For me, the breakthrough is how Birmingham is making an effort to take the virtual library to Birmingham’s citizens so that it doesn’t just sit on a server without anybody noticing. As Simon Whitehouse from Digital Birmingham said:
“In virtual reality environments, people don’t stumble across things on the way to the shops and say ‘ooh, there’s the library – I think I’ll have a look.’ You have to let them know it is there.”
The council is doing this in several ways. Firstly, staff are going to Birmingham’s 40 community libraries and to schools, showing the virtual model using laptops and projectors. Of course people will then be able to go and explore it themselves online, and even show it to their families and friends. Public computers within the libraries have been given access to Second Life to allow the public to do this when the virtual Library of Birmingham is launched.
Secondly, as Daden’s Soulla Stylianou told me:
“We are making every effort to ensure people can access the model right in their browser, without having to use Second Life software, for example by taking video extracts that can be posted on a conventional website. The blogging community has reported that Linden Lab‘s rumoured ‘Project Skylight’ viewer allows Second Life access through a browser, which we will try to make use of.”
As staff from the Library service have found, the possibilities are endless, including giving guided tours, holding events in the virtual library, offering services to people who have mobility problems… even taking a guided tour whilst sitting on a book! There are plans to use the model long after the physical Library of Birmingham is complete, possibly for new ways of accessing and visualising information.
David Burden, Daden’s Managing Director, said:
“We think that one of the keys to the library build is the way in which it can be used for a wide variety of tasks – from discussions about layout, through staff training to the delivery of real services. This multi-functional aspect gives people far more reasons to engage with the build, and makes for a far more cost-effective project.”
At the recent Beyond 2010 Conference and Hello Business events in Birmingham, Neelie Kroes (Vice President of the European Commission and Digital Agenda Commissioner), Birmingham’s Lord Mayor and conference delegates were offered a sneak preview of the virtual library and – as Daden and Digital Birmingham assure me – the reception was very positive.
So, contrary to my initial scepticism, I would give Second Life a second chance and I think that other local authorities should be watching closely when the virtual Library of Birmingham is launched.