I think and write about browsing and serendipity from time to time, and my perspective continues to evolve. I’m a big fan of online browsing possibilities, and firmly believe that serendipity can happen in online and physical environments. But, as I become more involved with humanities colleagues, I’m increasingly concerned about the potential loss of physical browsing and serendipity as libraries respond to budget and space pressures by gutting their collections.
Do scholars really browse physical collections? Do they really make great scholarly discoveries while browsing? Yep — sometimes they do.
The act of browsing libraries with the hope of finding a key unexpected resource is a kind of scholarly gambling. Although ground-breaking serendipitous findings are rare, they happen just often enough that the psychological appeal of variable rewards kicks in. And like gambling, big payoffs in serendipity are fairly widely publicized and rewarded (Da Vinci manuscript found, Jefferson book turns up). Just as lottery ticket sales tend to increase after a big win, stories and examples of scholarly serendipity serve to encourage new scholars to view libraries as deep mines, where they can dig around until they find some previously undiscovered jewels.
Another way that scholarly browsing is like gambling is that “winning” is not purely random. Just as “chance favours … the prepared mind”, there are countless ways to improve your chances at winning gambling games.
Scholars, like gamblers, are drawn to the idea of the big win, the possibility that this time they will find something awesome, unique, ground-breaking — that they will hit the jackpot. And the jackpot for scholars is usually something no one else has found or used. Which means that every low-use item we remove from our browsable collections — either for off-site storage, shared print repositories, or (gasp!) deaccessioning — reduces the odds of any given scholar hitting a big jackpot. By removing low-use items from our collections, we may be increasing the chances for small and medium payoffs, but we are drastically reducing the opportunities for big winners. By keeping only the stuff that is already being used, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, we may very well be reducing the opportunities for truly innovative and original research.