Serendipity And The Digital Library
It’s great that our academic libraries can provide the community with local and remote access to vast amounts of digital content. But in doing so, do our OPACs and aggregator databases eliminate the benefits of the serendipitous discovery of information? We’ve probably all had the experience of coming across an article or book while wandering the stacks or periodicals area. I’ve discovered a good many articles in the education technology literature just from browsing a journal cover that was left by the photocopy machine or waiting to be reshelved. With structured searches in electronic resources we may find what we seek, but the opportunities to come across something in a random way are fairly rare.
I hadn’t thought much about the loss of the serendipity effect until I came across an article titled “In Search of Serendipity” published in the Wall Street Journal. This article also caught my eye because it’s based on the newspaper industry, of interest owing to some of the Internet Age struggles that it shares with the library. According to the author, claims that online newspapers lack serendipity are just not true. With a print newspaper it’s not uncommon to spot an article of interest that you might not normally read. But how can that happen in an online newspaper environment? The author points to a feature of online newspapers that’s becoming more common. The “Most Popular” or “Most Viewed” list. I know I’ve discovered more than a few articles I would have never searched for from these lists.
I got to thinking that this could be a desirable feature for OPACs and aggregator databases that could return an element of serendipity to the library research experience. Why not have a box that appears in your search screen that identifies the top ten articles or books retrieved by similar searches to the one being conducted. That’s not quite like the “more like this” function in library databses which is just another, but somewhat more refined, search. Instead it would draw upon what others have searched recently that is similar in nature to your own search – and quite possibly just show what others found interested to actually view. Perhaps the box would simply show the ten most recently viewed articles from the past 24 hours. The author does note some differences between “most popular” and “most e-mailed” articles for delivering serendipity online.
As our academic libraries grow increasingly digital we will be removing opportunities for old-style serendipity. Now is a good time to start thinking about ways in which we can inject the value of serendipitous discovery into our research resources.