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.
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.)