What is browsing?

Browsing seems to be a perennial hot topic for libraries, librarians, and our patrons. I hear lots of fear that browsing as we know it will be (or has been) lost as collections go digital or off-site, and discovery is done almost entirely online. I’m not sure what exactly we lose in the online environment, since the potential for browsing in lots of new ways is available online.

So, what exactly is “browsing”? The colloquial definition seems to be about “serendipity” and finding things we weren’t looking for and didn’t know we wanted. This happens because items are ordered or grouped in some logical way. In a physical library, browsing is limited to the schema used to physically group items – browsing the shelves in most academic libraries means browsing by LC Call number (certainly not the only, nor always the best, organizational schema).

With electronic browsing, an infinite number of schema are available that allow browsing – by author, publication year, genre, just about any factor that we have in the metadata. We simply don’t have the capacity in our physical libraries to have arrangements of books by LC number, and duplicate arrangements by author, genre, new publications, etc. But we can do that in the online environment.

So what browsing advantages are lost in the online environment?

I think it has something to do with browsing within a book, rather than across books. As Andrew Abbott notes in his Task Force report on the University Library for University of Chicago: “In about two minutes with a physical book, a skilled library researcher can tell you a great deal about it.” (p. 18).

Can our online environments replicate or even improve on that experience of looking at a physical book and deciding quickly if it will be useful to my research? Can we give users the experience of looking at the book jacket, scanning a table of contents, glancing at an index, reading a few pages, etc.? Amazon seems to have figured out how to give people enough information that they are willing to make a decision about purchasing a book without necessarily seeing it first. Surely we will be able to give our patrons enough information about a book for them to determine if they want to borrow it.

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