Some people seem to think that serendipity and digitization are at odds with each other. For example, here’s a reviewer commenting on the newYale Book of Quotations:
I suspect that the continuing digitization of libraries will diminish the number of serendipitous discoveries made by those of us who now spend hours sifting through stacks of dusty documents in search of factual gold.
In my experience, however, research serendipity is more a function of how items are displayed, a user’s patience, and an open-to-anything attitude than digitization or technology per se.
For example, recently I had a number of students contacting me in a pre spring break panic. One was looking for primary sources on the United Fruit Company’s dealings in Costa Rica, but the sources had to be in a library somewhere in Boston, because she was going there for spring break. Her initial idea was to try the Boston Public Library. This student had already sat through a class with me on finding primary sources, so I was particularly interested in helping her find the resources on her own rather than just finding them for her. We sat together and I probed and pushed and made suggestions. It was apparent she had read a lot of the secondary literature and was quite knowledgeable and even passionate about the topic. Nothing seemed to be working though, until after 45 minutes, she stopped me and said,
“Wait. Go back.”
She noticed the cover of a book she had been reading displayed on a web page. There was a paragraph around the book that explained how the book was written using 78 boxes of photographs from the United Fruit Company Photograph Collection at the Baker Library of the Harvard Business School. I froze and felt my eyes get really wide as I realized we had just hit the jackpot. Some students though, like patients looking at x-rays, don’t realize what they are looking at even when it’s staring them in the face.
“Do you know what this is?”
“This is it. This is what you need for your paper.”
“Yes. Let’s look at it together.”
Eventually we both got more and more excited about the find, and she wanted to call her professor to let him know. She called but he didn’t answer. Then, I spotted him (synchronicity!) walking through the library. I stood up and pointed at him.
“Hey! Look at this,” I said.
He looked at the screen and started smiling and jumping up and down. Then she started smiling and jumping up and down. Then I started smiling and jumping up and down!
What a bunch of geeks! I held back a bit, however, because I knew that she still had a long way to go, like getting to the library, getting there at the right hours, and getting into the library. Not to mention fitting the resources into her paper in the right way. Still, it was a magic moment that will keep me going for a while.
Technically I guess it wasn’t serendipity, which is setting out to find one thing and finding another. Yet it wasn’t exactly precision searching either. Perhaps we need a new word, digidipity–digitally stumbling upon something that you would have had very little chance of finding otherwise.