A feminist defense of browsing

I’ve thought and written about browsing before, but ever since reading Bess Sadler’s Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery talk, I’ve been thinking about browsing from a feminist perspective. My thoughts are nascent and scattered at this point — in other words, perfect blogging fodder.

In Bess’ fantastic talk she talks about the emotional aspect of physical browsing and wonders how we might recreate the joy of browsing and serendipity in our online discovery environments. I wrote about that once, but far less thoughtfully, and certainly not as eloquently.

When I read Bess’ talk, I immediately wrote to tell her how great it was, and that I thought there was room to move some of the underlying feminist epistemology of it to the foreground. I sent her a copy of Jagger’s 1989 article “Love and knowledge: Emotion in feminist epistemology” (pay wall, sorry). Next thing I know she’s reading Women’s ways of Knowing, and I’m seeing gender everywhere (like I used to, before the everyday work of managing smudged my theoretical lens).

There is something about the way feminist epistemology debunks the myth of dispassionate rationality and highlights the crucial role of emotion in the pursuit and construction of knowledge that is very relevant to the work we are all doing in building new discovery environments (heck, as we build new libraries writ large). It might be as simple as remembering to build joy (or at least the opportunities for joy and delight) into our environments, but I think it is more than that.

woman browsing stacks

Browsing: Not just for women!
(Courtesy of bighappyfunhouse, Creative Commons License 2.5)

The same week that Bess and I were exchanging emails about this, I ran into a female faculty member in the library. I’m a lousy conversationalist, so I said something stupid like “What brings you in here?” And this brilliant, confident, accomplished humanities faculty member sheepishly replied “I was actually checking out a real book.” She went on to apologize for her love of physical books. I reassured her that I loved print books too, and that there was nothing to be ashamed of. We then had a good chat about how much you can learn, quickly (dare I say – efficiently), from browsing within a print book.

I have no data except my own observations, but it sure seems to me that there is a real gender difference in how scholars talk about physical browsing and the value of print collections — especially among those who defend it. It is my observation that men tend to defend physical browsing in terms of its utility, usually based on some interplay between the arrangements of collections and their own knowledge and ability to make connections. My favorite example of this comes from Andrew Abbott’s article The Traditional Future: A computational theory of library research. Abbott argues that traditional library research is “actually a quite high-tech computational architecture that relies quite heavily on well-trained individuals.” It is as if (some) men must defend their reliance on physical browsing by constructing arguments about how it really is a “technological” approach to research. In other words, using the library is just as “manly” as using technology.

Women, on the other hand, seem much more willing to talk about how they feel about physical browsing and print books — but only after apologizing in some way, as if they know that browsing is sort of old-fashioned. Women tend to talk about the joys of browsing, the pleasure in the feel of physical books, and the delight in finding unexpected treasures in the stacks.

All of this has me troubled by our tendency (yep, I’ve been guilty myself) to dismiss talk about the value of physical browsing as merely wistful or nostalgic. There is something very real and important there, and I think shining a feminist lens on the issues is likely to help us see what it is, so that the libraries we are building for the future are inclusive of all kinds of learners, scholars, and readers; and so that our discovery environments (online and physical) are built to accommodate not just efficiency, but also joy.

(Note: And once I get around to reading it, I feel pretty certain that J. Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure will have some insights relevant to what libraries are trying to do. I’m just hoping people smarter than me will take up the cause of writing and propagating a queer, feminist theory of libraries.)

12 Responses to “A feminist defense of browsing”

  1. 1 rachmattson March 2, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    My favorite thinkers on this topic are Rick and Megan Prelinger– they’ve organized the Prelinger Archives in San Francisco using an unusual structure designed for browsing and serendipity. And maybe its Megan’s influence, but Rick is really passionate about browsing in the way that you characterize as the women’s way above. See this video for a nice encapsulation of some of his ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSn0NCxcTN0

    I think your framing of browsing in feminist terms is extremely exciting; but i’m a little wary of making it a men vs. women game. Rick Prelinger is certainly an exceptional outlier– in this as in so many areas– but he can’t be the only man who has a feminist and open idea about browsing’s importance for intellectual inquiry.

    Thanks so much for your consistently provocative and exciting work.


  2. 2 Glen Worthey (@gworthey) February 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Library browsing: manly, yes. But I like it too!

    (So says I, in me best brogue.)


  3. 4 Renee Gimelli January 31, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Delighted that you find feministic intuition as a viable way to seek knowledge, and using words like pleasure and joy are so wonderful when attached to the word library. My intuition has taken me into many aisles in many libraries, and my librarianship allows me to handle the books in the visceral way. By weeding, shelf reading, and locating items for patrons, I become familiar with the collection and often take something home just to get a longer look at it.


  4. 5 Chris Bourg January 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    thanks for coming over and commenting. Special collections is such a great place to think about and observe the kind of joy I’m talking about. My favorite experience was tagging along while our SPEC public services librarian gave a tour to a bunch of 6th graders. The looks on their faces when they saw John Hancock’s dictionary, with his famous signature and other marginalia, was priceless.
    Halberstam talks about learning from kids and about “silly archives” in Queer Art of Failure. Lots for us to learn, I think.



    • 6 sophylou January 29, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      I just co-taught a session for history grad students with one of our archivists, and we got into a little discussion between us about how “minimal processing” can contribute to serendipity. She and I got talking afterwards about this gendering, and joy vs. utility — we thought it also had to do with time available and urgency: sometimes you need what you need, sometimes you have more time to explore and experience. But I definitely want to think more about joy in libraries.

      I’m looking forward to reading the Halberstam. My library has both the ebook and a hard copy, but the hard copy is checked out, so I’ll be getting it elsewhere…


    • 7 Renee Gimelli January 31, 2013 at 10:45 am

      I also experienced this kind of childish delight when I gave public tours of the Beethoven Center at San Jose State University Library. We try to make learning fun for our kids; why shouldn’t it be fun for us?


  5. 8 sophylou January 29, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Because I’ve been working to partner more with Special Collections for instruction etc., the idea of browsing/joy is interesting. For all of my library school I interned in a big special collections library’s public services department and always loved the feeling of connecting people with real stuff… but then there’s always the need to create resources and relationships that help smooth the path to the stuff.


  1. 1 Dimensional Construction Trackback on February 27, 2015 at 1:20 pm
  2. 2 Planning: Thinking about Summer Writing | True Stories Backward Trackback on May 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm
  3. 3 True Stories Backward Trackback on May 15, 2013 at 8:47 pm
  4. 4 Feminism, queer theory, and the future of library discovery « Feral Librarian Trackback on February 4, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow Feral Librarian by email.

Join 12,079 other followers

Follow me on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: