Reference, Transcripts, and Ethics in SL

Librarian spy

So here’s the situation: I dropped into the Info Island Reference Desk because someone asked me what librarians in Second Life look like. A neat question, I thought. How do librarians represent themselves when they can look like anything they want? Do they look like traditional librarians, with glasses and buns and sensible shoes, or do they mix it up and look more radical? So I thought I’d drop in and see if I could take some pictures of people to show the variety of looks librarians sport. But this is what I found instead: a librarian sitting in a chair with text over his head saying he’s just listening in to reference questions. (click the picture to see it bigger; the key parts are the hovering text over him, and probably also the two lines of chat in the bottom right corner. That tells you how people were reacting to the fellow!)

Does this seem appropriate to you? I mean, would we let someone just hover around the reference desk and record to the kinds of questions people ask us? This guy is sitting there completely mute. He’s probably away from his computer, so the joy for him will be in reading the transcript. I make no secret whatsoever about my issues with transcripts; I found this guy entirely creepy. He’s sitting in his chair, staring blankly out at us, recording everything we say. We apparently give our permission by merely being in the space. Since this is a reference point, this basically says, if you want to ask a question, you have to let this guy record it. And newbies may not realize that that’s what’s going on. I have a bad feeling about this.

He didn’t mean anything by it, I know it. He just wanted to get a sense of the kinds of questions that are asked at a SL reference point. He’s trying to learn. I understand that, but I think this approach is a classic example of misundertsanding the nature of a virtual environment. While it might look like it’s just another form of virtual reference software, it’s important to remember that you have a body in Second Life. You have presence and you can intimidate people. Someone plonking down in your living room and staring into space, with a tape recorder in their hands, is going to be saying something to the occupants, even if he says nothing at all. While body language is a null issue in traditional virtual reference software (I didn’t think it was time to attach the word “traditional” to vref, but there you go), body language has real meaning in a virtual space, and we need to be conscious of that. It would have been wiser to ask to shadow a reference librarian in action in SL rather than to just sit around and listen while afk. Actually participate in the process, like reference librarians in training tend to do. Watch and learn, participate and learn, interact and learn. The things we do in real life often work pretty well in an immersive digital world.

Is it respectful to record people’s conversations at the reference desk in real life? Why would we do it here? It’s possible here, of course; you can always record the conversations around you. It’s just transcripts, it’s just text. But in SL it’s not just text; it’s more personal than that. While it’s possible to record and study every word that’s said in SL, I expect librarians to be more thoughtful and more careful about patron privacy. We live by it in our work lives, so why shouldn’t it carry over? Why is it so difficult to bring the rules of real life social engagement into a digital world? Is it because, in the end, it’s hard to believe in the place and the people inside it? Is it too easy to dehumanize the virtual?

I used to run into that in text based environments. It was just too difficult to read closely and feel the three dimensions in text. But this is a three dimensional world, with human-like avatars. I would think it would be easier to humanize our presence there. But maybe I’m wrong about that.