This month on the PLIF blog, Scott Simpson, Head of Library and Information Services at East Renfrewshire Culture and Leisure talks about their Virtually Together project.


Several years ago, I was an observer in a procurement exercise for East Renfrewshire schools looking to buy VR headsets for the classroom. The kit they eventually bought involved using Google Expeditions to ‘take’ pupils to new and exciting places to learn’. This got me thinking…

‘Why shouldn’t public libraries do something similar for adults?’ After all, libraries are all about digital participation and inclusion. We expose our customers to new and innovative ways to access information and are usually found at the forefront of new technologies. Wouldn’t it be great to use Virtual Reality to bring people into libraries to try out new experiences?

VR and Health & Wellbeing

I teamed up with colleagues Joyce Higgins from Renfrewshire Libraries and Jeanette Castle from the University of the West of Scotland, and together we submitted a bid to the Public Library Improvement Fund.

Our idea focused on using Virtual Reality to support one of key strategic aims – supporting health and wellbeing. We realised we can use VR to target people at risk of social isolation and loneliness, bringing them together in the library to take part in shared experiences. In fact, our unofficial strapline for the project is ‘come and do your bucket list in your local library!’.

Purchasing the Equippment

A virtural Reality headsetAfter some research we eventually decided to purchase five Oculus Quest headsets for every project partner. The headsets only became available earlier this year and being completely wireless, they are ideal for our purposes. They are portable with no additional hardware requirements and are very straightforward to use.

All content we currently use is a mixture of apps we have purchased and free content that is readily available on things like YouTube. For anyone who has yet to experience Virtual Reality I have to say that you are in for a treat! The quality and immersive nature of the kit is frankly jaw dropping at times and it is quite easy to imagine that you really are jumping out of an aeroplane or swimming alongside sharks.

The Next Stage

Virtural Reality usersThe Virtually Together project will now see a team of students from UWS working with groups of library users in February 2020. The sessions will take place within the libraries themselves and will measure the impact of using Virtual Reality with older adults.

Some of the information we gather can be shared with other libraries, including things like ‘how to’ guides, training materials and best practice guides on designing and running your sessions.

At the same time, East Renfrewshire Culture & Leisure and Renfrewshire Libraries are programming various taster sessions with a wide range of library customers including visits to care homes, work with local support groups, Alzheimer’s Scotland and MacMillan Cancer. There will also be drop-in sessions for members of the public to experience.

Even at this relatively early stage this side of the project is evolving rapidly. Every time we showcase the kit to a prospective partner their immediate thoughts are along the lines of ‘wow that’s amazing…could we do this with it?’.

There are far too many examples to quote in this blog but here is one for you to consider if you are planning to follow suit – the Wander app for Oculus Quest is effectively Google Earth so you can take your library users more or less anywhere on the planet.

Virtural Reality userWander is good for the ‘doing the bucket list’ part of the project because you can have one group leader who can control where the group goes and what it sees. You can do things like take people to visit the Grand Canyon, or the Louvre, or Machu Pichu or any of the amazing places that people want to visit but have never been able to. And because it’s a group experience the amazement and wonder that people experience is shared.

But Wander also has a timeline feature which can allow you to see what things looked like up to 10 years or so in some cases. We see huge potential to use the kit for reminiscence where we can visit places they are familiar with but which have changed over the years.

If there is one thing that is certain it’s that we have barely scratched the surface in terms of how we can use Virtual Reality to work with library customers. For example, we have not even looked at the possibilities of working with groups to create our own content…but that is coming.

All three project partners are finding new and amazing things to do with Virtual Reality and it is exciting to be involved at this early stage.

*To find out more about the Virtually Together project you can contact Scott Simpson directly.