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.