Print has no monopoly on serendipity

Lot of folks claim that serendipity will be one of the casualties of the coming digital library–where more and more content is available online, and print collections are moved to non-browsable, off-site storage facilities. In The Traditional Future (PDF), Andrew Abbott goes so far as to argue that “browsing and the consequent production of serendipitous insight are a constant presence in library work, not an exceptional one.” Abbott goes on to argue that the “technologization of library practices are either neutral or harmful to the enterprise as it has been conducted” (emphasis mine).

The problem with these arguments is that they assume that serendipitous discovery happens only in print, and will be eliminated, or greatly reduced in an online environment. That has certainly not been my experience. The joys of online serendipity are described well in the New York magazine article, In Defense of Distraction.

Abbott argues that the value of physically browsing the stacks is in finding items one wasn’t looking for in the first place; which perfectly describes most of my online browsing. Or, as the author of In Defense of Distraction notes, “Isn’t blowing a couple of hours on the Internet, in the end, just another way of following your attention? My life would be immeasurably poorer if I hadn’t stumbled a few weeks ago across the Boston Molasses Disaster.”

There is no doubt that serendipity is an important and a fun part of research and scholarship. But it is not limited to print materials. As Steven Bell notes in Serendipity and the Digital Library, we just need to make sure we “inject the value of serendipitous discovery into our research resources” as we develop the tools and environments of the future library. And as @jmiles notes, we also need to ensure that we teach the next generation of scholars the art of digital browsing.

As a postscript, the motivation for this post came about through a classic case of online browsing and serendipity. Like most cases of serendipity, I don’t recall all the details of the trail I followed, but it went something like this — Someone I follow on Twitter retweeted something interesting with a hashtag for #calicon09. I decided to follow the conference tweets, and stumbled on (and joined in on) a mini-discussion of #serendipity.

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9 Responses to “Print has no monopoly on serendipity”


  1. 1 Rebecca June 22, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    My husband and I have been discussing this issue lately…how serendipitous of you to post this very topic! ;-)

    • 2 Chris June 22, 2009 at 2:31 pm

      Great–so how about sharing what you and hubby had/have to say about the topic? ;-)

      • 3 Rebecca June 22, 2009 at 2:45 pm

        Well, we both came to the conclusion that each medium (print and online) has its own type of serendipity. In other words, “browsing” or “stumbling across” certain information while scanning the daily newspaper is much different (and could be more comprehensive since it is right in front of your face) than “browsing” and “clicking on links” within an online newspaper (could be less comprehensive because you choose what to click on or browse). Does that make sense?

      • 4 Chris June 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm

        That does make sense. My print browsing usually goes much deeper than my online browsing … but my online clicking/browsing usually takes me much farther afield from where I started than my print browsing; so the serendipity seems more “serendipitous” — does that make sense? When I’m browsing in print (either a single newspaper, or a whole library), my serendipitous discoveries are limited to the materials that are physically available to me. When I’m browsing online, the serendipitous possibilities are much less limited. Hmm … need to think this through a bit more …

      • 5 Rebecca Blakeley June 22, 2009 at 7:46 pm

        That does make sense! Heh heh. My husband said the same thing…browsing discoveries limited to what is physically available but online browsing is less limited. He said reading the print version of NY Times and there is a story about tuberculosis outbreak in Burma, it’s there. You look at it. You might skim it. But if it was online, would you click on it and read it? Depends whether or not you are interested in it. I guess online browsing is more selective. My husband just said, “of course, there are no LOL cats in the NY Times!” Agreed.

      • 6 Chris June 22, 2009 at 8:55 pm

        I wonder if print browsing goes deeper, and online browser goes broader?
        At any rate, your husband is right about LOLcatz missing from NY Times. And the Wall Street Journal has no xkcd comics either ;-)


  1. 1 A feminist defense of browsing « Feral Librarian Trackback on January 29, 2013 at 12:03 pm
  2. 2 Browsing as scholarly version of gambling « Feral Librarian Trackback on November 4, 2011 at 8:41 am
  3. 3 More on serendipity and browsing « Feral Librarian Trackback on June 23, 2009 at 7:31 am

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