Jul 17 2019

Tips for Launching a Public Library Virtual Reality Program

Public libraries across the country are turning to VR to enhance education and draw in new visitors. Here’s how to make such a program a success.

The city of Santa Cruz, Calif., hugs the Pacific Ocean and sits around 60 miles south of San Francisco. It is on the front lines of climate change and will be one of the places in California where expected rising sea levels will have their most immediate impact.

The city has partnered with Santa Cruz Public Libraries to give residents and other visitors a virtual reality view of the city’s current coastline and what it would look like with a projected 2.4 feet of sea level rise in combination with a 100-year storm, as the Middlebury Institute of International Studies reports.

Bjorn Jones, digital learning librarian with Santa Cruz Public Libraries, says the library system partners with the city’s Resilient Coast Santa Cruz initiative, and the VR demo is a stop on one of the initiative’s experiences. 

The library system recently submitted a grant proposal to continue the next stage of the partnership, and is working with the city and Juliano Calil, a senior fellow and adjunct faculty at the Middlebury Institute and co-founder of Virtual Planet, on the software for the program.

“We’re using library spaces to set up virtual reality experience stations so the public can experience the future of Sant Cruz’s coastline change in VR,” Jones says.

As library tech evolves, many public libraries are embracing VR to enhance their missions of educating the public and enhancing access to technology. Some are in more advanced stages of deploying VR technology and hardware than others, but librarians see great potential in VR. The tech can be used to enhance storytelling and educational programs via immersive graphics, and it also serves as a way to draw in residents who may have thought of public libraries as passé in the information age.


How Library Tech and VR Fit Together

Members of the public at large are becoming more aware of VR tech, and are seeing it in movies, on TV and in books they read, says David Lee King, digital services manager at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas (and one of StateTech's must-read bloggers).

“It’s really easy for a library to hook you in if you buy a thing and show it off, sort of like show and tell,” he says. “People will come to check out the new equipment maybe they can’t afford, or they want to know or don’t know what it is.”

Virtual reality library programs give local residents the opportunity to explore the emerging technology and to let them see its potential uses as an educational tool. “A lot of people, at least in my community, they think of the library as the place to go to learn about emerging technology,” King says. “They almost expect us to have the new thing. Not every library is like that, but certainly ours is.”

The Carroll County Public Library system in Maryland first introduced VR in the summer 2016, soon after the launch of the consumer version of the HTC VIVE VR headset.

“We were aware that this would be our customers’ first experience with VR, and we wanted that experience to be as high-quality and impactful as possible — thus the decision to go with high-end, PC-based VR,” say Jen Bishop, CCPL’s emerging and digital technologies manager, and Bob Kuntz, director of operations and innovation at CCPL.

“One of CCPL’s strategic goals is to provide access to technology, and as part of this goal, we create experiences to connect our community to the potential of emerging technologies.”

David Lee King , Digital Services Manager, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library
A lot of people, at least in my community, they think of the library as the place to go to learn about emerging technology.”

David Lee King Digital Services Manager, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

CCPL added the Oculus Rift and Google Expeditions VR in 2017 and just recently added the Oculus Quest to its VR lineup.

“Our VR rigs are shared systemwide between all six of our branches to offer an introduction to VR through a variety of demos,” Bishop and Kuntz say. “Even three years later, there are still many in our community who have never experienced VR, especially high-end, PC-based VR.”

Libraries are known for supporting literacy, Sant Cruz’s Jones says, noting that it’s “kind of one of their subtext missions.”

“Something that we as an organization like to support is learning opportunities,” he says. “We’re taking VR out of the gaming context and highlighting the software. It’s leaning toward learning to also have something that just aligns better toward the library’s mission.”

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Examples of Virtual Reality in Libraries

CCPL has been able to introduce the community to VR and augmented reality and start the discussion for practical applications for these technologies in industry, healthcare, education and other areas, according to Bishop and Kuntz.

“We have also been able to engage our staff with utilizing VR and other emerging technologies in existing programs, such as using VR to virtually travel to a destination highlighted in a book club discussion,” they say.

CCPL has also used VR in its outreach programming, having high school art students create 3D art in VR as a class and taking VR to local Boys & Girls Club for afterschool programs, as well as to local senior centers, according to Bishop and Kuntz.

“Moving forward, CCPL is working to support content creation for VR and AR with platforms such as Cospaces Edu and Unity, as well as through the opening of a dedicated VR/AR lab at Exploration Commons at 50 East in 2020,” they say.

Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ VR program has evolved significantly since it was first introduced to the public in early 2018, according to Jones. The library system received a grant to purchase HTC VIVE and Oculus Rift headsets and tower PCs to support them. The library in mid-2018 added two Oculus Go wireless headsets. Throughout 2018, librarians brought the VR headsets to 40 different programs.

At first, the headsets traveled around the 10-branch system and were used for overviews of VR technology and short demos. However, even though the library system was getting positive reviews of these programs, it was not getting the attendance it wanted, Jones says. So, the library pivoted and used extra funds to purchase 360-degree cameras to show off their capabilities in VR.

Bjorn Jones , Digital Learning Librarian, Santa Cruz Public Libraries
We’re finding opportunities that might benefit from the enhancement of a VR experience and joining up with other events.”

Bjorn Jones Digital Learning Librarian, Santa Cruz Public Libraries

Still, the library was only getting seven or eight people to show up for such programs, according to Jones, making it difficult to justify the marketing and staffing efforts, as well as the setup time and expenses. 

“Where we’re at today is a strategy of synergizing with other programs,” Jones says. “We’re not trying to do standalone VR events. We’re taking a break on that. We’re finding opportunities that might benefit from the enhancement of a VR experience and joining up with other events.”

In addition to the climate change program, those include a telescope-lending program that enables users to experience outer space in virtual reality.

At Topeka & Shawnee, there is not a permanent VR hardware display, but the library is about to purchase an Oculus Quest and a lower-end HTC VIVE product when it comes out, King says.

VR attracts people who may be more interested in tech, programming or gaming and less interested in watching a movie or reading a book, King says. It also enables the library to connect with things it is trying to do in local schools, such as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) programs.

“It’s just a new way to do that,” he says. “It keeps that relationship going and building.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how AI technology can help state and local governments.

Best Practices for Launching a Public Library VR Program

Public libraries should consider several factors when deciding to deploy VR, librarians say. Bishop and Kuntz say that includes determining what technology the library is already using and introducing to the community and how AR/VR could fit into such offerings. Additionally, they say, libraries should consider their goals (visual vs. interactive experience), budget (economical vs. higher-end), and IT support (core staff, IT Department or outside expertise).

Staffing considerations are critical, Jones says, since new technologies like VR require dedicated time and attention from staff. “It’s going to take somebody there to manage it,” he says. “You can’t set it out like you would an internet terminal.”

To justify that staffing time, Jones suggest libraries have a partner or program that would make regular use of the VR hardware.

Staff also needs to be trained on the technology, King notes. “A lot of libraries don’t have a lot of IT department staff to be babysitting it,” he says. “It’s up to us to train public service librarians who are going to be doing the programs.”

Bishop and Kuntz say libraries need to consider how to get administration and staff support, how to get funding and how the tech will be used in programming. Another suggestion: Try before you buy. “Think of some places you can try VR hardware before purchasing for your library, such as another library, university, school, museum, vendor, or at a tech meetup,” they say.

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