Serendipitous Discovery: A Critical Perspective

Given my passion for serendipitous discovery in libraries, I was delighted to read this paper by Patrick L. Carr:

Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery (PDF)

It had never occurred to me to consider serendipitous discovery from this angle before. Serendipity can be construed as a failure of a user-centered information environment to properly meet the needs of a user. Perhaps serendipitous discovery isn’t a benefit so much as it’s a compensation mechanism for the failures of our search systems.

This suggests interesting avenues for inquiry and development. I think it’s a beneficial perspective. Serendipity isn’t all good and librarians should approach it strategically.

I’m particularly struck by this passage on page 18:

By situating the library as a tool that functions to facilitate serendipitous discovery in the stacks, librarians risk also situating the library as a mechanism that functions as a symbolic antithesis to the tools for discovery that are emerging in online environments. In this way, the library could signify a kind of bastion against change.

And this one from pages 20-21:

In this historical moment, framing the library as a symbolic refuge from change can have a stultifying effect. It can prevent users from using the library in ways that are organically related to their immediate and evolving information needs, and, as a result, it can close off new horizons of meaning.

This is an insightful point. With popular media incessantly pushing the idea that libraries are becoming irrelevant, we need to be wary of anything that might prove such a perception.

However, in discussing the various ways that people seek information in user-centered information environments, I’m not sure that Prof. Carr properly acknowledges those who enter the environment with the explicit desire to be surprised. In part, I think this is due to the paper’s focus on academic and research collections. It presumes use-cases in which even the most unstructured search strategy is still intended to find resources that answer a fairly specific information need.

(Indeed, virtually all of the articles and papers I’ve seen in the professional library literature that address serendipity focus on the role it plays in academic and research libraries. To Prof. Carr’s credit, he acknowledges the limited focus of the paper in his “Conclusion.”)

When I think about my treasured moments of serendipity, none of them happened in research libraries. They occurred in the fiction collections of public libraries and on the shelves of bookstores. This is how I discovered some of my favorite fiction authors, as well as the most interesting titles in my personal non-fiction collection.

In these cases, I entered the library or bookstore with the explicit intention to wander without any formulated goal. I sought to be surprised. I wasn’t looking for anything—I was just looking. To quote Daryl Zero in the movie Zero Effect:

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.

In the end, however, I think the most important point Prof. Carr makes is that libraries don’t have the resources to be all things to all people. Those of us who seek surprise intentionally are a minority of information seekers. Our need for serendipity probably doesn’t represent the best use of library resources.

That being said—One of the things that excites me most about the current Information Age is our increasing ability to create adaptable information systems. Information systems that are flexible and responsive enough to serve each user in the way that best serves them. Not merely the current types of linked data systems addressed in this paper (systems that “think for [the user]” and are viewed mostly negatively [p. 20]) but rather systems smart enough to back out of the user’s process, if that’s what the user wants.

We’re entering an age when technology is developing the potential to create information systems that actually can be all things to all people.

In this regard, perhaps serendipity can be seen as a useful benchmark of a system’s flexibility. An ideal information system will be able to provide both perfect targeted searching results and also serendipity, depending on what a user wants.

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2 thoughts on “Serendipitous Discovery: A Critical Perspective”

  1. I wonder if there has been any academic literature that examines library patrons and browsing as flanerie of like information or the stacks. There are always multiple currents and uses and personal meanings made in the stream of and in opposition to societal trends and media sources. With that in mind a type of curated serendipity could be one of several search interfaces the library offers. It certainly would set us apart from other information retrieval methods in a way that is not necessarily regressive.

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    1. Firstly – thank you for using the term “flanerie”!

      I’m fascinated by this idea of curated serendipity. I’m not sure how that would be accomplished. And, if I have a criticism of Prof. Carr’s article, it’s simply that serendipitous browsing isn’t de facto regressive. Traditional search methods aren’t automatically opposed to progress and change, especially if those traditional methods are still useful to people.

      What the article highlights for me isn’t a criticism of the nature of information searching but a potential danger of the perception of searching.

      I see no reason why serendipity can’t comfortably exist side-by-side with modern searching and discovery methods. Information seeking isn’t a zero-sum, either/or behavior. We just need to be very aware of how we frame it and present all of our discovery options to our users.

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