November 24, 2017

Serendipitous Discovery: Is it Getting Harder? | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellFew would argue against the value of serendipitous discovery, especially when it happens in the library. Is it possible that the evolution of libraries and related technology is making it less likely?

Two years ago my institution embarked on a new campus master planning process. I was asked to chair the group working on library and information resources. It was composed primarily of faculty from multiple disciplines. Whenever we got to talking about a new library building that would be included in the master plan, my colleagues, no matter what discipline they represented, shared a similar aspiration for the facility. They all wanted there to be book stacks where students could browse and make discoveries among the shelves. I wondered if they realized how few students visit the stacks. Their students, more likely, were staring at screens. None of those faculty would likely roam the stacks. They had a nostalgic longing for their students to have a library experience similar to their own in their college days, where they no doubt made some serendipitous discoveries in the stacks. Frankly, it was unexpected, but I was moved by their sentimental attachment to the college library.

Gone but Not Forgotten

I was reminded of this when I came across a tweet from a presentation at the most recent Charleston Conference. Apparently this faculty member, a classicist, has something in common with my own faculty.

He may not actually use the physical library much, but sees it as a great place for serendipitous discoveries. That requires books in stacks waiting to be browsed. There’s something inherently good about browsing. Hardly anyone disputes the value of what we call serendipity. As far back as 1740, Horace Walpole, the English aristocrat who coined the term, celebrated the joy of making a good, accidental discovery. The problem is that 21st century technology in our libraries may bring a halt to the kind of serendipity in the stacks experienced by previous generations of faculty and students.

It’s more than libraries. Jennifer Boylan, writing in the New York Times, bemoans the loss of joyful music discovery on the radio. It used to be, writes Boylan, that underground FM radio stations and then college radio stations were where she had accidental collisions with new artists. While Pandora and Spotify offer convenient listening through our devices, Boylan finds they just play back what’s already familiar to her. Great new discoveries are rare. Are academic librarians eliminating serendipity from the library experience in the way that Internet radio is taking the surprise out of new music discoveries?

Planning for Serendipity

Librarians may be squeezing the serendipity out of the library and research experience, but in some other industries where the value of serendipity is recognized there is a movement to increase opportunities for it to happen. The desired outcome is to create collisions in the workplace. Those are serendipitous meetings between staff from different parts of the organization, such as when someone from engineering meets a little known colleague from marketing. There’s actually a name for it. It’s called engineered serendipity. There is a body of research that supports the positive impact of putting people from different areas of the organization into situations where they can literally collide. Over the last 50 years, social scientists have found in repeated experiments that conditions bringing people together—even if it is just sitting five feet away at lunch instead of 15 feet away—almost always leads to more accidental discoveries. Given what we know about the positive impact of designing serendipity into the environment, why would libraries be moving in the opposite direction?

Serendipity in Jeopardy

To an extent we may be victims of technology, but some of the responsibility is our own. The decline of serendipity is owing to several factors. The transition to ebooks is reducing the number of texts on shelves. While there are still plenty of print volumes going to the stacks, the long-term trend seems to favor ebooks. Even if the technology for browsing ebooks improves, the experience will never be the same as handling print on shelves. As community expectations shift to a desire for more individual and group space, libraries are eliminating stacks in favor of people space. When books move to remote storage sites or robotic retrieval systems, no patron’s hands can browse them. Student interests are changing too. The number of humanities and social sciences majors is in decline, and those students are traditionally more inclined to be book browsers. Everyone is in a hurry or their devices have them distracted. Who has time for leisurely strolls through the stacks?

New Ideas Needed

Preserving the value of serendipitous discovery may be nearly as essential as preserving the material itself. We have some options. We need to get creative about developing new and better paths that lead students into our legacy print collections. That means putting books in places where unanticipated discovery can occur. For example, locate a new book display in the computing zone. With researchers at all levels preferring digital spaces where the emphasis is on fast, convenient retrieval, encouraging browsing and accidental discovery will require some thoughtful technology intervention. That may include everything from today’s recommendation algorithms to just-emerging digital shelf browsing to tomorrow’s artificial intelligence. Academic librarians could collaborate with faculty to engineer serendipitous discovery into research assignments. For example, instead of providing links to specific articles, what if students were only supplied with librarian-constructed search strategies that lead them to relevant sets of literature requiring student-driven browsing, evaluation, and selection? We need to explore the possibilities.

Too Precious to Lose

The first step is to recognize the value of serendipitous discovery and then commit to keeping it at the core of the library experience. Many librarians have an accidental discovery story to share. The student who randomly found a book sitting on a table, connected with it, and then did a deep dive into that subject. The faculty member who comes looking for one book and leaves with five others that were previously unknown. Sometimes these good accidents can change the course of an individual’s life and sometimes they can change the world. More often than not, they just lead to a good experience at the library. I would hate to think that our digital transformation might lead to a future where serendipitous library discovery is but one more obsolete experience from a forgotten analog world.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. Serendipitous discovery in modern libraries has been an obsession of mine for several years now. Thank you for writing about this topic.

    Articles like this one from “Business Insider” also emphasize the need to preserve serendipitous discovery:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/actually-teens-love-print-books-libraries-and-bookstores-2014-12

    Regarding how teens discover books to read, the most important factor is familiarity with an author and then “[t]he next two most important factors are physical browsing through bookstores and libraries.”

    My personal serendipitous discovery story is precisely that scenario – several of my favorite authors and books were ones that caught my eye as I was browsing the stacks. I’m sure this echoes just about everyone else’s experience.

    I will say, though, that my experiences with serendipity occurred mostly in public libraries and bookstores, not so much in academic libraries. Doing research, I would occasionally find resources I hadn’t anticipated but that still fell within the scope of my targeted search. I rarely just browsed the stacks at school.

    I don’t presume that this is necessarily typical of other people’s experiences, but given the importance of location in serendipitous discovery, I think we need more data to inform us of the relative value of serendipity in different types of library environments.

  2. While not directly germane, my experience with Spotify has led me to discover different artists.There is Discover and also Browse functionality that let’s this happen.