Unintentional Knowledge

I love this article! It’s a wonderful summary of the real value of browsing the stacks.

Unintentional Knowledge: What We Find When We’re Not Looking by Julie Alves (posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2013)

As a professional librarian, I’m obsessed with the phenomenon of serendipitous discovery. Some of the most rewarding learning experiences of my life came to me by chance; I discovered some of my favorite books and authors simply by browsing the shelves at the library and allowing interesting things to catch my eye. I’m more grateful for these unlooked-for experiences than I can say.

With new digital content services, and with more libraries going towards automated storage and retrieval systems for their print collections, we’re challenged to find ways to maintain the possibility of non-targeted browsing and unanticipated discovery under these new conditions.

I’ve long been uncomfortable with what I feel is a governing paradigm of modern information and communication technology: namely, it’s heavily based on allowing users to designate what they do and do not what to see in their personal information environments, and only presents them with things designed to match established preferences. It makes it easy for us to avoid anything that challenges our assumptions and perceptions; this technology encourages us to surround ourselves with information that only confirms what we already believe.

It’s my experience that in our present-day information technology environments, we’re less likely than ever to stumble across things that are foreign to us. This is a very destructive development.

Without disagreement, without argument, we never learn critical thinking skills, debating skills, problem-solving skills, peace-making skills. Surrounded only by that which reinforces our already-held beliefs, we never learn how to change our minds. Without challenge, without encountering that which is foreign, we never learn to see other perspectives or respect other ideas.

If we never encounter other perspectives, we never learn empathy.

It’s only through challenges to our ideas and opinions that we learn to extend our thoughts, our perceptions, our knowledge, beyond an extremely limited personal scope. By encouraging us to create highly solipsistic information environments for ourselves, by making it easy to exist only within those environments where we never have to encounter disagreement, we starve ourselves of the opportunity to grow.

In the greatest Information Age the world has ever seen, the dominant technological paradigm encourages people to be less well-informed. Or, perhaps more accurately – less broadly informed.

Serendipitous discovery is a bulwark against this solipsism. It’s more important than ever to make sure that we can still be surprised by information, that we can still discover things we never set out to look for. It’s more important than ever to understand the value of challenge, of disagreement, of debate.

I think it’s possible set up new systems that allow for and encourage serendipity in digital and automated library environments – but it’s very difficult. Despite the difficulty, we need to find a way.

My all-time favorite quote comes from Terence (Terentius). I encountered a loose English translation of it when I was very young, and it’s been my motto for the rest of my life:

“I am human, nothing human is alien to me.”

This ideal – the belief that I can understand any and all human behaviors, beliefs, values, or customs, no matter how foreign or discomfiting; the idea that I should strive to know as much of humanity as I can – has driven me my whole life. I’m afraid that the solipsism I see being fueled by our current technology is going to render this ideal false. That anything foreign will remain unknown to too many.

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