New interactive program lets students access library resources and chat in a virtual world

Students may soon be “rofl” in the library, thanks to the new Virtual Bibliographic Instruction initiative led by Mark Puterbaugh, Warner Library’s Information Services Librarian.

VBI is a virtual world rendered in full 3D which allows users to access internet library resources and chat with each other as they explore.

“We want to get away from the stodgy old librarian with a bun in her hair going ‘Ssh,'” Collection Development Librarian Susan Joseph said.

On March 22, students had a chance to try the program on the library’s computers as part of a demonstration Puterbaugh was giving at a conference in Washington, D.C.

The virtual library contains multiple buildings, themed according to the resources they provide. In the main building, users could access popular locations on Warner library’s website as well as popular databases, such as Lexis Nexis.

Other buildings include the Opera House and the Hospital, which feature music and nursing resources, respectively.

Users explore the world using the keyboard arrow keys or the mouse in “free look” mode. They either walk or float from place to place, and a clickable map provides a teleport option that zooms players to different buildings.

In addition, a global chat channel and a whisper function are available for group and one-on-one chat within the world.

According to Puterbaugh, VBI also takes advantage of VoIP, the Voice of Internet Protocol, which allows for voice chat on computers equipped with microphones. This functionality was not demonstrated at the March 22 event.

VBI began four to five years ago “with a listserv message from Jack Colbert, a librarian in Georgia,” Puterbaugh wrote in an e-mail interview. He said that Colbert wanted “a place where librarians could meet and share ideas.”

Puterbaugh expanded that concept, using Activeworlds software for creating online “universes,” to create a place for students as well as librarians to meet and interact. He hopes that eventually the program will become a way of providing “distance reference services.”

Funding for the project has come from Activeworlds and SIRSIDYNIX, Eastern’s library system vendor.

With more funding, Puterbaugh hopes to be able to expand the number of users who can access the world at the same time. Currently VBI supports 20 users at any given time, though the world could in theory support thousands of users.

VBI’s graphics are reminiscent of the Nintendo 64-era and the returns on a fast computer seem to diminish pretty early – even with a 128bit graphics card and 512Mb of RAM, there’s a lot of pop-up and texture blurring. The only thing that seemed to improve as a result of the extra memory was lag due to background downloading.

The graphical issues are a trade-off, however, that allows the program to run, in theory, on most computers built in the last six years or so. As Puterbaugh emphasizes, the most important aspect of VBI is the community.

“Students who get it think it’s a lot like The Matrix.

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