I’ve been giving more thought to my earlier post describing my alter ego as a stack rat. I noted that one downside to the digitization of libraries is that researchers will have fewer serendipitous moments. When one searches out a book with a given call number, he or she almost inevitably confronts related (or simply interesting) volumes that live nearby. I can think of many times when this process led me to useful books that I’d never heard of before. As more and more research is done online in our offices (or perhaps in our den/guest room – you know, the rooms where Barbies and My Little Ponies inexplicably like to congregate despite instructions to the contrary), we no longer happen upon these accidental wonders.
But things are bound to improve. With digitization comes the potential for new serendipities. It’s all in the hypertext. Think about Lexis and Westlaw. When I research a case, a large portion of an opinion’s references can be found with a click. Most commonly, these links take us to cases and articles. But what if their materials also included weblinks?
Of course, a large portion of scholarship outside of law (particularly articles) is also available digitally through JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, and the like. The problem is that, for now, these materals don’t contain hyperlinks. These PDF documents look nice, but they are digital dead ends. But what if these documents also included hypertext links? And what if all the new digital books did as well?
Imagine the fun! Every time I came upon an interesting citation, I could charge off into a fresh diversion. One curious quote, one odd source, and with a single mouse click – BAM – I am back in the deepest corner of the stacks exploring unexpected treasures. We’re not there yet. We’re actually in an unfortunate middle period. Increasingly we abandon the physical library, doing our research at our computer. Yet this wonderful technology has not advanced quite far enough to provide us with new serendipitous moments. But for those people who dream of the day that they can do all their research without ever moving their sedentary buttocks, buck up! Serendipity awaits.