Caledonia Skytower answers some questions on the background of Seanchai Library and how she got started there.
1) How long have you been involved with Seanchai and how did you get started?
I have been involved with Seanchai Library since August of 2008. The Library had opened the previous March. The leadership of the West of Ireland Charity Estate had asked Derry McMahon to open a library to compliment the features of the Estate.
I was still fairly new to Second Life, and I had taken to searching in the viewer for places I had always wanted to visit on Earth, so I could explore their virtual iterations. Ireland was pretty near the top of the list. That’s how I found West of Ireland. There seemed to be a lot of great things going on there. I found a place on a stretch of shore and was about to log out when someone named Shandon Loring (now my co-leader of Seanchai Library) IM’d me and greeted me, telling me that they told stories every evening, and inviting me to come the next evening. I did. And that, as they say, was just the beginning.
2) Does Seanchai have a governing board? If not, how is it managed?
For most of the last 9 years we have essentially been a confederation of volunteers, working cooperatively. 90% of our operations are charitably based, and involve the donation of time and treasure – no one makes a dime.
Derry McMahon, our founder, was Head Librarian until she retired from that position in December 2012. Derry worked with a small group of core staff to coordinate the larger program. When Derry retired I assumed the mantle of “Lead Staff”. I work along side our Chief Storyteller, Shandon Loring, to coordinate our programming and planning. For the last year or more that has meant that I took the lead on the SL program (because there has been a lot going on) and Shandon took the lead in our branch operations on other grids. We are blessed with a dedicated corps of Seanchai staff and affiliated storytellers. It is really a wealth of talent.
In 2015 we piloted our EXPLORE program, based in Kitely, to develop what we do into a tool for educational, language arts experience augmentation. Some of our staff would do this, what we do, full time if we could. So we began developing small projects and have been working to position ourselves as a service provider to non-profits and educational institutions.
3) Are there any changes planned for year 10?
Moving towards such an auspicious celebration we are taking the time to review where we are, and where we think we are going. I say “think” because we have discovered so much in the last 10 years. I doubt seriously if any of us had the vision in 2008, or even 2010 that we would be where we are right now. I think any healthy, forward-looking plan needs to allow room for discovery, as well as the inevitable unexpected.
So, we’ll see where this review process takes us. To me, it is important that we move into the next few years with a clear, united vision – something everybody owns, We are not what we were 10 years ago – even five years ago. So what do we do with what we have achieved? and how do we leverage what we have learned moving forward? Those are the sorts of questions we are asking.
In the more tangible sense, we will be continuing The Dickens Project, Last year we were on a half region, thanks to the support of Kultivate Magazine. Hopefully we will, at the very least, unfold Dickens’ classic on that much space again. Those plans are in process now. We will be continuing our Storyteller’s Sandbox series in June, to provide a forum for the growing number of independent storytellers to present in a larger forum. We are also have three EXPLORE projects in the developmental stages. All are pending funding support, and all would take place in 2018. That could be quite a year!
4) How do you pick the programs and charities?
From the very beginning Derry believed, as I do, that people need to read what they love – books and stories that they are excited about. So we ask our staff to submit tittles that they are interested in and I try and balance them out so that our offerings remain diverse. I tend to schedule everyone else first, then fill in the holes myself with whatever we are lacking. Most of the time that is pretty successful. Every now and then we’ll have an odd couple of weeks. In the beginning of January this year we got incredibly dystopian and surreal for a couple of weeks. I found myself thinking, “How the heck did that happen?”
As for the charities, we used to do it by rotating the choice among the lead staff of four, and we would all review the choice and weigh in. Now, Shandon and I review and choose. He is good at finding new charities that might not have come onto our radar before. All charities are vetted through GuideStar and Charity Navigator. I have spent 30 years in the non-profit sector and so there are things I specifically look for. We try and focus on charities where they function with lean overhead, with a lot of focus on program impact. We work to balance charities that have global impact against those where the efforts are more localized. We also try and balance types of endeavors: ecology, education, human welfare, and literacy of course!
5) How difficult has it been to expand into other virtual worlds? Was it hard to coordinate the yesterdays event in Kitely and SL?
I am often quoted as saying, “Virtual Worlds are all alike, until they are not.” In truth, even though grids look the same, they all work a little differently. Part of that is technical. Part of that is cultural. Even though the tools of communicating and creating community look similar, how they are used is very specific to the social culture. In some cases, like in the Open Sim metaverse, there are grids that are in their infancy … they exist in a server in someone’s house. So how they foster community and the tools they use to promote that are still developing.
Shandon has been the go-to person in Kitely from the beginning, and he has invested a lot of time and effort monitoring how the culture there has been developing, and building relationships. I think that is really key to developing new audiences. Like anything else it is based on relationships, built one at a time in some cases. People throughout virtual worlds continue to ignore that reality. It doesn’t matter whether you are opening a dance club at InWorldz, or an Ice Cream shop on a corner in San Diego, you have to build and maintain relationships to make it successful. You can’t just open your doors and say “y’all come!” and expect it all to happen by osmosis.
Shandon telling story in voice at Seanchai Library
I think some of the tools Shandon has been working with to connect our audiences in different grids is some of the most exciting work we have going. The biggest drawback to maintaining operations in multiple grids, is the need to duplicate all efforts. The Anniversary party held simultaneously in two grids was more work than one party would have been, but it was less work than two separate ones. It gained a critical mass that we would not have been able to create otherwise, and that has benefits in terms of community exposure and consciousness.
6) Is there anything you would particularly like people to know Seanchai?
There has always been a great deal of pressure to be everything to everyone. There are plenty of people doing great work in language arts and spoken word, and I feel we have always understood our own priorities. We use live voice presentations, and a variety of degrees of immersion, to inspire people to engage with literature. From that they read, they buy books, they patronize their local libraries. We encourage them to share the stories that interest and excite them. Some of folks have even begun writing their own adventures. We emphasize that stories are an important, essential element of the human experience.
An audience listening to a program at Seanchai Library
While I would love to increase our accessibility – I dream of a day when someone will develop an ASL interface – we still reach a lot of people with what we do. It isn’t for everyone. There are no dance poles. But I think we do a pretty decent job of being open, welcoming, and of fostering community around the shared experience of stories, read aloud.
Sometimes the simplicity of what we do, and the profound impact we have on the individuals in the community we have grown, overwhelms me.
Do you like to hear stories told in voice? What are your favorite stories to hear or tell? Join in the conversation and share you favorite story listening experience. What was it? Where were you listening to the story?