If serendipity really is about finding the unexpected, then online browsing might be more likely to facilitate the truly unlikely findings than print browsing, simply because the set of possible discoveries is much less limited in the online world than in the physical. If I am browsing in a library or a bookstore, I am limited to what is in the physical building. If I am browsing through a physical newspaper, I can only discover what is in the issue I happen to have at hand. When I am browsing online, I frequently end up far afield from where I started.
The xkcd folks illustrate this best:
My personal experience is that I am much more likely to make fruitful, serendipitous discoveries through online browsing and social media connections than I am when I browse print materials or collections. I “wander” more when I am online, willingly following links that lead me in unexpected directions. I am a bit less likely to wander around bookstores or libraries, and I often recycle certain sections of the newspaper without even looking at them. I am much less patient and less adventurous in the print/physical world. Perhaps it is because the effort involved in following a link seems to be much lower than in wandering down the next aisle in a bookstore, or even flipping through a usually neglected section of the paper. Abbot argues that efficiency is the enemy of serendipity, but I am not convinced. YMMV, but I stick by my assertion that serendipity can and does occur in online environments.
And another thing-since I am online nearly 24/7, with Tweetdeck open and checking Google Reader and Facebook frequently, I am browsing and discovering new information constantly in the online world. In the physical world, I browse the newspaper once a day, and browse in a library or bookstore once a week or less.
Couching a defense of print collections on a fear of losing serendipity just doesn’t strike me as a very convincing argument. Serendipity happens online. If there is a particular kind or quality of serendipity that happens only in the print world, we need to be specific about it so we can either replicate (or even enhance it) online, or so that we at least know what it is we might be losing.