Serendipity Without Stacks

Timeliness, structure, and willingness to perform process-oriented tasks and maintain operations with consistency are some of the work behaviors that I associate with librarians who have experience as hourly library workers.  For those reasons, I value the years that I spent as a full-time library staff person before being offered my first librarian role.

But moving from classified to professional status has, for me at least, involved a paradigm shift that has been difficult at times to wrap my head around.   As library staff, I had some autonomy and input into decision making, but my primary role was to carry out library protocol.  I believed that a cheerful, ‘can do’ attitude was the objective that I should constantly be striving for, and sometimes I even succeeded at that goal!

As a librarian however, I’m finding that a plucky attitude and a consistent desire to do my job well are only the beginning.  I must also conceptualize some of the overarching goals and objectives that I want to define my library career.  It isn’t that I’ve never thought critically about the role and future of libraries…I certainly did in graduate school!  However, over the last couple of years, I had put those thoughts aside in order to focus on job knowledge.  Moreover, I was engaged in a search for a professional job, and I wanted to keep my options open; I believed that over-narrowing my focus would be problematic.

Now, though, it is time for me to think deeply about the paradigms around which I wish to structure my career.  In some library roles, professionals are anchored by a collection or a narrowly focused user group, and their career objectives flow naturally from those starting points.   My position is a little different.  As I mentioned in a previous post, my job is newly created and intentionally flexible.  Moreover, I work in a non-traditional academic library environment, which is fairly young (the UW Library Research Commons is only 3 years old).

No doubt there are many library paradigms that I will come to explore, ponder, and perhaps even subvert (!) over the course of my career.  The one that I have been thinking about a lot lately, however, it that of the “serendipity of the stacks.”  I’m not sure where I first encountered this term, but a little quick research turns up an article by Michael Hoeflich [1] which captures succinctly the spirit of the idiom; that of the fortuitous nature of research and the intellectual thrill of making an important research discovery that can only be achieved through deep relationships with library collections.

This is a well worn idea, sure, but it’s in idea that I like and I identify with (full disclosure: I spent my graduate school years as a student curatorial assistant in my library’s rare book collection).

The Research Commons is bookless, and our focus is on providing space and technology to promote collaboration.  But from that collaboration, intellectual serendipity can surely arise.  I have personally seen it happen, particularly at the programs and events that we host in my library, such as our Scholars’ Studio series, which invites graduate students from across disciplines to present ‘lightning talks’ on a given topic.

Programming like this gets at the human aspect of “serendipity without stacks” and mark the library as a place where spontaneous learning and collaboration can happen.   It’s a good start.  But I am also interested in new modes of serendipity that could be discovered in the realm of digital scholarship.  What could this interest mean for the future of my library career?  I’m not sure yet, but I trust that the answers will come to me; through serendipity or otherwise.

1. Hoeflich, Michael H. “Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives.” Law Libr. J. 99 (2007): 813.

One thought on “Serendipity Without Stacks

  1. Hi Chloe – Serendipity is an interest of mine and I wanted to let you know about a forthcoming book “Accidental information discovery: Cultivating serendipity in the digital age” edited by Tammera Race. I have a chapter with a colleague on teaching serendipity and I’ve seen the TOC and it should be of interest to you.

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