Within the online, virtual game, Second Life (http://secondlife.com), is a large group of islands or sims (short for simulators) operated by libraries, institutions and organizations from around the world. These people, mostly volunteers, work cooperatively on this "archipelago" developing services, classes, collections and professionial realtionships that not only serve the Second Life communities wherein they are located but also play a part in the future of educational and library services in real life.
This region, commonly known as the Info Island Archipelago, began in 2006 under the leadership and financial support of the Alliance Library System in Illinois. The library sims offer a unique opportunity for libraries and others to "play" with concepts, theories and ideas in virtual reality. Collections and role playing sims cover topics as varied as medieval society, medical procedures, agriculture, literature and human sexuality. Alliance Library System (East Peoria, Illinois, USA) directly oversees several sims at the core of the Archipelago collectively called the Alliance Virtual Library.
Among the Alliance Virtual Library sims is Imagination Island. Opened in February, 2007, it is comprised of two areas. On the eastern half of the island is Mythica which includes resources on mythology, legends, fairy tales and fables as well as a residencial community for Second Life inhabitants. West of Mythica lies Rachelville, a park like setting providing basic information on children's literature for teachers, librarians, parents and other interested adults.
Rachelville began in January, 2007, with a monetary donation to the Info Island community by Bill and Diana Sowers in memory of their daughter, Rachel. Each January since Rachel's death from leukemia in 2000 the Sowers' had given money to an agency or program that reflected the creativity and interests of their daughter. Both were already volunteering in the Info Island community and felt that the imaginative work around them reflected Rachel's enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy.
The donation was given solely for the general support of the Second Life Libraries project but Info Island administrator, Lori Bell, contacted the Sowers' and suggested that they add Rachel's spirit to the gift by creating a place where the books and stories that inspired their seven year old daughter might also be promoted to others... and Imagination Island and Rachelville were born.
Rachelville is laid out in a park-like setting with few buildings and paths allowing visitors the opportunity to wander. A plaza sits at the center of the parcel with a small greeting center providing information on Rachelville, Rachel Sowers, childhoood death and parental bereavement. Resources on children's literature are scattered throughout the island, donated primarily by members of the Second Life library community. Rotating exhibits on summer reading programs, back to school literature, Palestinian culture, Cinco de Mayo and an exhibit of photgraphs taken by African children are among the temporary displays that have graced the plaza since Rachelville's beginnings. In August, 2008, a castle was added with the intent of adding more permanent, fixed collections and resources. Two meeting areas are provided, one on the plaza and the other, the "Collosseum Lecture Theatre," up in the sky. Within the past year an underwater area called Ocean's Roar has been added with resources on sea life as has a space station 3,000 meters above the sim with science fiction and fantasy literature resources. A library in Second Life much like in real life has to constantly change and develop to bring its users and new visitors back.
Mixed closely with the resources, information and meeting spaces are the "physical" elements that set Rachelville apart from a web page on children's literature: The 3-D feel of this virtual world creates a sense of real interaction with objects and other avatars. The fountain above the pond shoots out watery light while the fish swim below it in the moving water. The wolf in the garden howls and moves his head as one passes by. The tree swing allow users to sway back and forth. Waves crash against a dock on the west side of the island. Blue orbs placed throughout Rachelville allow visitors to teleport (i.e. "TP") around the area easily. The sounds of nature have a quieting effect while the books set on shelves in the castle (which are freely copied!) signify that this truly is a library... Second Life at its best.
Finally the spirit of a seven year old girl shines out in this place named for her in its whimsy and wonder. A spinning carousel sits on a cloud above the castle inviting a circular sojourn on sea creatures. A mushroom invites passers by to sit on it and soar gracefully into the sky. And sitting up on a hill taking up most of the south side of the parcel sits "The Secret Garden," a visual delight inspired by one of Rachel's favorite books by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Imagination, humor and creativity weave in and out of tools that teach and inform.
Virtual worlds at their best give us an opportunity to step outside the box and set out in front of us things that lie inside our minds waiting to be seen, heard and "touched." Rachel's father, in his greeting message at Rachelville puts it best:
"So wander the garden and maze. Check out the resources on children’s literature. And while you linger here remember that within each of us is a child like Rachel with gifts to share, stories to tell, songs to sing… worlds to create. All you need is a pair of wings to lift yourself out of the ordinary and up to the sun."
Bill Sowers (SL: Rocky Vallejo)