More On Serendipitous Research

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.

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. AnonStackRat says:

    Yes! I can’t wait for the day. Do you know the story about Thomas Wolfe, in the stacks of the Harvard library, with a stop watch, giving himself a minute to read each volume he came across?

  2. Joe Hodnicki says:

    Serendipitous research in your posts focuses on the value of browsing while your notion of clicking on web links is called “bibliographic coupling” in library and information science. These are be two very different things. Please note, my concept of browsing the stacks is broader than yours because yours predicates browsing on requiring a book’s call number to get one into the stacks.

    Bibliographic coupling is just a fancy name for citation analysis. Viewing a web link as providing access to more than just the cited web page is not unlike finding the published proceedings of a symposium on a topic by way of a cite to a specific presentation in that symposium. That’s the dynamic of citation analysis. Your search is still dependent on the original citation taking you to related interesting publications. Not necessary so for browsing. You do not need the call number of a specific text to take you to a range of stacks containing other related and interesting publications. All you need to know is where a subject area is shelved in a library. If fact, a true “stack rat” doesn’t even need to know that much. He just needs the curiosity to browse the stacks, to walk down the aisles to see what’s there.

    Confusing bibliographic coupling with browsing isn’t unusual. Both have curiosity in common but, then, all self-motivated research is based on curiosity. Some may want to embellish that by saying research isn’t based on idle curiosity, that research is questioning grounded in wonder, but I choose not to go that far. Even idle curiosity can be intellectually productive. I offer as proof, an endangered species, the stack rat.

    As a practicing law librarian who is facing the reality that institutions are favoring “bytes” over “bricks” because the former is less expensive that the latter, browsing is being neglected as a bona fide approach to research.

    Sidebar: An former colleague, Ray Schoonhoven, then a corner office partner as at Seyfarth, Shaw in Chicago, once told me a story about how after using all the tradition research tools, he simplying was not finding what he needed. At his wit’s end, he started pulling Federal Reporters off the shelve (!) and eventually found the authority he needed (!!). Yes, this is an extreme example of browsing but it is one that I doubt any researcher would try to replicate using Lexis, Westlaw or web-based resources.

  3. Woah! You’ve really written a nice piece of article.