Digital environments provide many more opportunities for serendipity than print ones. Sure, there may be happy discoveries on the shelf or in a random group of items bound together. But the chances of happy discovery are multiplied in the web environment. Now, when I hear an argument based on serendipity, I usually assume that it really an assertion of a preference for one set of behaviors over another.
In this context, I was interested to read Steven Johnson’s discussion of serendipity from a few years back …

I find these arguments completely infuriating. Do these people actually use the web? I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books. With music blogs and iTunes, I’ve discovered more interesting new bands and albums in the past year than I did in all of my college years. I know radio has gotten a lot worse, but really — does anyone actually believe that radio was ever more diverse and surprising in its recommendations than surfing through the iTunes catalog or the music sites? [ Can We Please Kill This Meme Now]

Now, if you narrow the discussion to the library ‘before’ and ‘after’ the digital turn, we come back to the issue that library systems do not make their data work hard enough in service of discovery, routine or happy ….

4 thoughts on “Serendipity”

  1. I completely agree that library systems do not make their data work hard enough in the service of discovery. I’d also contend that the “serendipity” that occurs in the physical library should not be discounted so easily. In fact, physical spaces (and libraries in particular) are incredibly rich in context and cues that enable a particularly effective sort of serendipity. There’s a “geography of knowledge” inherent in a library that is simply stripped away (along with countless other cues) when we move into the digital realm. In fact, I can’t help but see the popularity of the social web as an attempt to win back some “context” that is sorely missed otherwise. I’m confident that much of the richness of the physical library is quantifiable, and could (in many cases) be reproduced in the digital realm. But up to now, we fall far short — our digital world is much shallower than we might like to admit.

  2. I think Steven Johnson and people like Thomas Mann are talking about two different kinds of serendipity.
    When I am looking for a book, and I find a number of books on the same topic that are useful to me in the same class, that is different then me liking one album and then finding another album based on my preference for the first one. I am not really “researching” the first album and finding that the second one applies to my needs. I don’t really have a purpose in mind, beyond the need to be involved in cultural production.
    And, and no one seems to mention this, you have to wade through a lot of crap on the internet to find the diamonds. With the library, we’ve paid librarians to do that for us.
    However, as you mentioned, the catalog should really be helping us find the best of both worlds in this regard.

  3. The problem of serendipity in a print collection is *precisely* that it has been mediated by a librarian. Browsing the sociology texts, you may miss that one book which you really need, simply because the cataloguer decided it should be with the psychology texts.
    Also — and we have just done a massive weeding exercise — a library print collection can be over-stuffed with “old” texts. We have the competing desires to be relevant and to conserve. So browsing the stacks can, like the internet, involve finding a lot of crap and few diamonds.
    For me, information is information, print or digital. But the digital realm (potentially) offers us so many more ways of sorting and filtering that information.

  4. Hey, why can’t we have “both/and” and rejoice rather than debate, dismiss, or wring hands? One guru I heard at a conference said if you find multiple places on the Web verifying a piece of information you can accept it (it’s not crap). When I tried this to verify that a quote was from Chesterton it seemed to work, for many reputable sites indicated it was, but none said where. The head of the Chesterton society helped, saying both that Chesterton never said it and who did and in what book. The whole process embraced online, print, and social aspects very smoothly.

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