Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Accidental Discovery

wild lily of the valley

One argument I've heard in support of a library maintaining printed books on physical shelves is the ability to browse. I've been thinking about this for a while, because web browsing seems pretty standard (and easy).

So what are the differences between browsing a shelf of books and browsing online? Linking (usually in the form of mouse-clicking) is required online, but interactivity is good, right? You can come to the end of a bookshelf fairly easily, but online you can browse nearly infinitely -- again, isn't that a good thing?

But maybe what people who favor physical book shelves don't like is that when you search online you use specific words, and your corresponding results are limited by your vocabulary. As opposed to, say, finding a book in a library catalog, going to a shelf to retrieve it, and noticing an even better book on the same topic next to the one you thought you wanted.

In the context of higher education, we should be fostering accidental discovery by encouraging students to be curious and interested in pursuing information beyond what they originally look for. It's true that a lot of online tools try and match your search terms as precisely as possible, and it's also true that if your search terms contain your biases, you are guaranteed to have those biases confirmed. But what makes a student curious enough to look beyond the results generated from a (sometimes limited, partial, or myopic) query? I think ultimately the ability to find a variety of ideas and opinions depends on curiosity, and not whether a resource is on a shelf or a web page.  

3 comments:

  1. "I think ultimately the ability to find a variety of ideas and opinions depends on curiosity, and not whether a resource is on a shelf or a web page."

    I agree with your conclusion here. Bias is present now matter how the information is retrieved/organized, right? Card catalogs and the dewey decimal system (or however shelving works now) is definitely biased.

    That being said, I really miss going to a library to get a particular book on a particular topic, and then ending up checking out 4 other books I found nearby on the same shelf.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just read this post, dealing with similar ideas: http://chrisbourg.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/more-on-serendipity-and-browsing/

    ReplyDelete
  3. Another post, on serendipity, from Lorcan Dempsey:
    http://orweblog.oclc.org/archives/002002.html

    ReplyDelete