At the risk of sounding nostalgic, the extinction of the venerable card catalog is a symbolic reminder of the trade-offs we make when we digitize our lives. While no one would argue for a Return of the Cards, we may have lost a research affordance I think of as “serendipitous search”. As libraries become digitized and the temptation to eliminate the physical library itself looms large, the challenge will only grow…
Just last week, I had the pleasure of visiting a wonderful, well known university library. It had everything – a gorgeous gothic building with ornate vaulted ceilings, an amazing collection of books and periodicals covering every conceivable niche of knowledge, and reading rooms so quiet that your ears yearn to hear a pin drop. It was a library that had it all – except for a card catalog.
For either romantic or architectural reasons, the card catalog room was still there in all its gothic glory, but the drawers were all empty. Call it ironic or call it progress, who could blame the library’s administrators? After all, the efficiency of electronic databases far outweighs the quaint and expensive-to-maintain cards.
But it seems to me that technology has not yet adequately replaced “serendipitous search”, which I define as “browsing and finding something amazing that you didn’t plan on finding.”
It isn’t just that browsing by topic is fun or interesting. The business of “poking around” is actually important. As one doctoral student I know pointed out, “Do we always really know what we’re looking for?” One could argue that physically browsing (card catalogs and/or books in the stacks) by topic has some benefits that “googling” hasn’t (yet) replicated. His example was related to research in foreign languages. A query may send you to “the stacks” in search of something written in German, but by looking at adjacent books, you’re likely to find something even MORE interesting in a completely different language – and not necessarily in your original query results.
I’m no expert in search technology or cognitive science, but I would wager to say that serendipitous search is so powerful because our minds are very good at seeing connections and patterns. But it appears to be a complicated blend of conscious intention and unconscious (if that’s what it’s called), tip-of-the-tongue thinking. Stumble upon that one image or one idea, and you release a flood of new (or forgotten) thoughts. [Note: If any of you reading this actually know what this phenomenon is called, please post a comment!]
I mention this because there is a second wave coming – a growing trend amongst cash-strapped education institutions to eliminate the physical library itself. For those who only go to the library to find exactly what they already know exists, and who have the technology and knowledge to download it instead, they may not care. But we ought to care.
Perusing a well-stocked library is an amazing experience for the casually curious and the serious researcher alike. Books or periodicals organized by subject can be quickly visually scanned; unfamiliar authors or publications can be “discovered” and examined; and citation sleuthing can lead you in unexpected directions. For example, in this recent library visit of mine, browsing through the periodical reading room I “unearthed” all sorts of treasures I had not expected to find.
As you know, I am no techno-phobe nor am I a techno-luddite. What I *am* is an advocate for learning technologies that support clear learning objectives. If the objective is “memorize facts in the textbook”, I say, “Sure, save some trees and cost by making it digital”. Better yet, don’t just make it a static file – use the technology to help students succeed in memorizing.
If the objective is to support inquiry and research, give me ALL the best technologies that are available:
- Powerful internet search engines
- Vetted databases – and experts who can help me use them
- Online professional networks that connect me to experts
- …and printed books - vetted, organized, and physically browse-able
Don’t get me wrong – I am not a proponent of the return of the card catalog. But I do think it is time to revisit and enhance serendipitous search as a tool to support our intellectual pursuits. The “library” as we’ve known it is changing. Let’s use technology to enhance, not reduce, what libraries do best.
Have you experienced an example of “serendipitous search”? Do you a vision for what the “library of the future” could be? I would enjoy hearing your ideas and examples, so comments are most welcome.
Jim Vanides, B.S.M.E, M.Ed.
Education Program Manager
HP Office of Global Social Innovation