The purpose of this paper is to examine recent thinking about reference services and library use of virtual reference (VR) software, in order to put into context the value of advanced social networking technologies such as Second Life to libraries and their users.
A brief review of the main developments in the recent history of VR, combined with a comparison of the relevant features in common between generic VR packages and Second Life.
That the key weaknesses of established VR services are also found in Second Life, but that these weaknesses should be readily overcome as technical advances are made and librarians clarify to software providers the type of functionality they require from their services.
The need for a higher level of complex authentication functionality, as necessitated when combining digital library subscription services with interactive virtual library environments, is outlined and defined. This is a fertile area for service provider research and development.
The practical benefits of VR and Second Life services to libraries will be limited until the authentication issues summarised in this paper are addressed.
The paper attempts to enlarge the literature on Second Life by discussing this recent innovation in terms of the broader historical context against which such digital library services have evolved. In particular, it points out the ironic similarity between digital reference environments and declining traditional reference services, which both are disadvantaged by their “distance” from core, authenticated digital library content.
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