Situating Serendipity in the Research Process

Can we teach the seemingly inefficient process of serendipitously encountering information instead of searching for it? Maybe not.. 

August 13, 2015

One of the reasons library renovations are often controversial is that browsing for books seems to be pitted against creating spaces for doing other things – group work, study spaces, digital humanities labs, academic services like tutoring or writing centers. As library collections (and budgets) are increasingly devoted to digital resources, the argument for the essential need for browsing is harder to sustain as fewer books are added to the shelves. Particularly for libraries without historically strong collections or a healthy budget for new books, browsing isn't always rewarding. Some library catalogs have ways of browsing by classification, but we put more effort into being as Google-like as possible.

Though many scholars relish that unexpected find, that book that you weren’t looking for that sparked a whole new line of thought, students think browsing the stacks is inefficient. One unusually cynical student told me once that most of the books are too old and all of them are too long. This isn’t to say students find books useless, but browsing for them isn’t something that comes naturally. It takes time. It seems aimless. It’s hard to find the gems when you are just getting started on an unfamiliar topic, especially when so many of the books you’re sorting through were published long before you were born.

I’m a fan of browsing, but I usually don’t face the deadlines students have. Go on, you try completing  several essays about different subjects you don’t know much about within a few busy weeks.Besides, I have a lot of tacit knowledge that helps me sort things quickly and a tolerance for dead ends that I might not have if I was being graded.

Which brings me to the font of serendipity that is academic Twitter.

Twitter gets a lot of knocks. It’s impossible to say anything meaningful in 140 characters. It’s a time-suck. Why would I care about what somebody had for lunch? It's like saying “browsing the stacks is a waste of time. The shelves are full of books I don’t want to read.” Or saying “I don’t understand why anyone reads newspapers. There are stories about China’s currency are right next to something about Donald Trump and whole sections on sports and cooking and I don't care about those things.” But a semi-curated stream of ideas is a wonderful thing. I don’t follow anyone who tells me what they ate for lunch. I do follow a mix of people - digital humanists, scientists, journalists who cover things I’m interested in, and lot of librarians who are doing interesting things. Thanks to these folks, I hear the news from academic conferences that I’m not at. I learn about political issues in Australia, Canada, and the UK, because the academics are not solely focused on their specialty. Mostly, I discover links to interesting things to read.

It's odd how much I rely on this strange mode of browsing that is not based on a classification system or searching for particular information, but on connecting with people who share reliably worthwhile things. This morning, for example, I saved seven links that relate to my research interests and added three things to a monthly collection of links sent out by an organization I belong to. Among my finds:

  • Web Design: The First 100 Years, the text of a talk Maciej Cegłowski gave last year. It’s a corker. He looks at the development of airplanes and how a period of fast advances has been followed by a period of slower change. It turned out we could build a supersonic jet, but we didn’t need to. He uses this story to challenge the idea that technology will continue to change exponentially and suggests that some of the changes we are seeing are unnecessary, harmful, and in some cases delusional. So many connections I can make here to ed tech and to the way librarians think about the inevitability of technological change. I would never have discovered this text if someone who I know has reliably interesting ideas to share hadn’t connected it to something another person I follow was saying at a conference.
  • Facial Recognition Software Moves from Overseas Wars to Local Police” by Timothy Williams in The New York Times. I subscribe to the Times, so probably would have seen this without Twitter’s help, but privacy (or rather, our loss of it) is one of my interests as a librarian. It makes a nice pairing with a recent GAO report on the commercial uses of facial recognition software. 
  • We Took a Tour of the Abandoned College Campuses of Second Life” by Patrick Hogan at Fusion. This is not something I saved, but I couldn’t resist reading it. A reporter prowls around the abandoned sites set up by a few campuses that apparently have absent-mindedly continued paying for unreal estate on a platform that was the big new way to reach young people a few years ago, until everyone realized it wasn’t a place young people went. Now these virtual campuses are ghost towns with hints of what we thought was cool back then. Sometimes Twitter is a cabinet of curiosities.

 I haven’t figured out a way to interest students in this kind of Twitter grazing any more than I’ve persuaded them to read a newspaper on a regular basis, browse the stacks, or routinely mine a source’s bibliography for gems. They don’t have time for discovering anything they weren’t looking for and the model for finding things out that they have used all their lives looks more like a search box than a cabinet of curiosities or a cat’s cradle of connections. I would like to find ways to help students develop habits of curiosity, including strategies for successful serendipity – but maybe, in a world divided into brief semesters and tasks that are graded, that’s just not going to happen.



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