March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

3 Steps for Introducing Teens to Virtual Reality | ALA Midwinter 2018

Though virtual reality (VR) is immensely popular, it’s more than a hot trend—it’s a way for librarians to create stimulating educational programs that resonate with teen patrons. On February 11, at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter meeting, Digital Services Librarian Maddie Clybourn described how Maryland’s Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS) implemented a well-thought-out VR initiative, and offered tips for reproducing her success.

At PGCMLS, which serves an affluent community with a high percentage of teen patrons, engaging young people is a high priority. To address that need, the library’s administration purchased an Oculus Rift (a VR device) last summer for the Bowie branch, which had recently reopened and sees many teens weekday afternoons, owing to its proximity to a local high school.

Though it was only Clybourn’s second week on the job, she quickly became an integral part of the VR programming team. Her background in school librarianship, where measurable learning objectives are crucial, made her an ideal team leader for the initiative. “We wanted to move beyond just the novelty of it and really create meaningful programming for these kids,” she said. Indeed, the overarching goal (“Teens will simulate multisensory experiences with virtual reality in order to invest new topics, construct meaning from new information, express ideas, reflect on learning, and connect with others in and outside of their community”) borrows heavily from the language of former school librarian and ALA president Barbara K. Stripling’s Model of Inquiry.

Getting the teens actively participating was a lengthy process, said Clybourn. “You have to start small and gradually move up.” The initiative comprised three different levels. First, young people needed to become comfortable with the Oculus Rift. Many were curious when they saw the device in the branch’s designated teen zone, she said, but felt too intimidated to try it.

To combat their anxiety, Clybourn feigned ignorance, telling teens she needed their help to figure out how to work the Oculus; she also let patrons play with very simple games in order to build confidence. Appealing to one of the most popular teens was another a surefire strategy; after others saw him using the device, they were eager to give it a whirl. Clybourn also asked teens what they liked and disliked about the Oculus and took their concerns seriously.

Next, she and her team created thematic, curated programming, related to events such as Women’s History Month or Black History Month or what students were learning in school. The library offers virtual college campus visits, for instance, as well as a virtual glimpse of Syrian refugee camps.

Clybourn emphasized relying on statistics (the number of kids who played with a game, how often a game was selected) to inform future programming. Informal cues are key, too, she said. The People’s House, in which the Obamas give participants a tour of the White House, prompted one teen to exclaim, “Dang, Obama is right there!”—an indicator that the game was a hit.

With the third level, librarians encouraged the teens to contribute content of their own, giving them cameras and telling them to make short films that could be viewed on the Oculus Rift. Clybourn said that the library also obtained Google’s Tilt Brush, which allows users to paint in three dimensions.

She concluded with concrete suggestions for those interested in bringing VR to their libraries. Before jumping right in, she said, librarians should come up with a detailed proposal that addresses issues such as staff training, budget, and the necessary infrastructure. Clybourn stressed the importance of reviewing the content of every game before making it available to teens, to ensure it’s both high quality and appropriate. “One of the major developers of virtual reality content is PornHub. Be aware of it. It’s there.”

Collaboration is essential, noted Clybourn, who advised that librarians communicate with their administration and IT and reach out to others working with VR in their systems.

Finally, Clybourn said, make sure to keep the momentum going: host programs when patrons are in the library, and tap social media when possible. “A lot of program success is based off of you making sure that you have an audience and that the logistics are correct.”

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar ( is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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