Preserving Virtual Worlds project archives digital media
You wander around a library, staring up at Renaissance drawings and manuscripts that are more than twice your height. Uninterrupted, you browse these original documents from the first few centuries of the printing press. And then, you fly away — all without leaving your computer.
Defying gravity comes easily when you’re an avatar in the 3D virtual reality world of Second Life. While a first life at Stanford may seem like more than enough for most people, Stanford University is slowly increasing its presence in Second Life.
In the virtual world, participants can make friends, instant message, build houses, design clothes, attend concerts, rake in real money and pretty much do anything they want. Including visit Stanford University Library. Or fly.
“I think that this particular tool — virtual worlds — is really going to be the wave of the future,” said Deni Wicklund, Stanford University Libraries (SUL) tech support manager and the woman in charge of Stanford’s Second Life “island,” a private community separate from the “mainland.” “In some ways it’s like the Internet was in its early days, with the debate over whether people would even want to use it. Now we are so encompassed by it.”
Many students had never heard of Second Life, and still fewer have used it. Wicklund is trying to change that.
For the last three years, SUL has been involved in digitizing certain items from the special collections and putting them on Second Life on an exclusive Stanford island. Several professors have experimented with teaching classes in Second Life, but so far the greatest success of Stanford in Second Life has been in attracting researchers from all over the (real) world to see what Stanford has to offer.
A recent exhibit of Egyptian movie posters in Green Library found its home in Second Life with text that the user could translate into either English or Arabic. Boxes of items from Stanford’s archives also make perfect virtual replicas of the actual boxes sitting on the dusty library shelves. Researchers can view certain items in Second Life before deciding if it’s worth the trip to the library and also learn exactly where and in which box the real item is held.
Wicklund, who often hangs out with her avatar around Stanford island to answer questions and talk to people who show up, says she’s encountered people who hail from places as far away as Thailand, Brazil and Jordan.
“They’re coming to see what Stanford is doing in Second Life,” she said. “There have been a couple times when I’ve run into a prospective student who for some reason thought Second Life would be a good place to check out Stanford. I’ve also run into a woman who said her husband was standing behind her [in real life] and they were parents of a prospective student.”
Many schools across the world now offer course options in Second Life, including medical classes in which students can practice virtual dissections. In one Stanford archaeology section, students toured a virtual re-creation of an archaeological dig in Turkey. In the coming months, Stanford hopes to increase outreach to current students on Second Life and make more people aware of the opportunities in the virtual world.
“Clearly Second Life is not for everyone,” Wicklund said. “Some people take to it immediately, and for other people it doesn’t affect them that way. [But] for those few people that it appeals to, we’re there.”
While Second Life may not interest everyone right now, both Stanford and the Library of Congress agree that it will have great importance for the future. Since so much cultural formation takes place in virtual worlds, they believe, Stanford and several other universities have partnered in the Preserving Virtual Worlds project to both update old video games for preservation, and record moments from Second Life for the future.
“We’re capturing events in Second Life with video, such as concerts, classes [and] open houses,” said Susan Rojo, manager of Stanford’s Digital Media and Collections Project and one half of the Stanford duo working on Preserving Virtual Worlds. “In comparison to all that’s going on in Second Life it’s pretty small, but we’re trying to make it representative.”
Stanford is also working on preserving the video games Doom and Sim City.
Making room in the exalted Library of Congress to store digital video game files may seem sacrilegious next to Abraham Lincoln’s writings and eighteenth century revolutionary pamphlets, but Rojo points out that because many forms of media are not considered culturally significant at first, valuable moments may be lost to future researchers.
“The problem in preservation is always the need for someone to find something of value in it to preserve it,” Rojo said. “The first handful of years of TV have little to no record, since they would tape something and then next week tape over it. Something important to our culture wasn’t preserved.”
While many institutions seem to have accepted the cultural importance of video games and the effect of gamer enthusiasm on popular culture, Second Life and the Stanford Second Life project have not endeared themselves to all students.
“I think Second Life is a ridiculous waste of time,” said Leo Alterman ‘12. “I think it’s a bad idea to waste resources on it.”
However, Gloria Johnson ‘12 said that losing old video games to the broken consoles and rotted bytes of time would be a tragedy.
“They’re classic,” Johnson said. “Ask any gamer and they’ll tell you, that’s a part of history.”