Say it isn't so!

Terry has a post entitled Serendipity, R.I.P.. Now, I haven't read his column in tomorrow's WSJ (shame about that, really, because if I could read tomorrow's papers today, I could make a lot of money at the track and in Vegas and retire in style!) but I'm hoping he agrees with me. In my own inimatable style, I shot off a response, which I'll share here

And yes, I'm yelling about it!

I can't tell you how many times students looking for a book to read come in with one goal in mind (say, the most recent Harry Potter or Misty of Chincoteague) and as they're looking at the shelf, notice something completely different that looks interesting. They take it off the shelf... they read the back cover... they ask if I've read it (of course! I've read all 30,000+ books in the library - it's my job!)... then, 9 times out of 10, they take it AND the book they'd originally been looking for.

The same happens during research. Because of the Dewey Decimal System, most books on a topic are grouped together. So when you've found a book "perfect" for, say, your paper on the Indochinese role in the Treaty of Versailles, you may just see - right nearby - another book that also has good, useful information, perhaps one better than the book you'd thought was "perfect".

If our collection were hidden, requiring students to find the item on-line and then present us with a slip so that we could retrieve the item from the stacks, that would never happen. Yes, I know that's how the British Museum and the Library of Congress (and, I hear, Princeton) work. But I think that the casual reader and the emerging scholar simply would vanish if every library were like that.

End of rant.


Anonymous said...

Browsing is such a joy. I do a lot of specific requesting from my local public library and don't browse the physical shelves there too much (no time right now). But I browse through online sites - friend's recommendations, the Reader's Place, Amazon, etc. I can pick and choose from there.

Yet there are times I just have to stop and look at the shelves. I never know what I might discover there and have found many gems that way. It's like standing at the counter in the ice cream shop - "What flavor do I want today?"

Steve Lawson said...

It's true that browsing a library or bookstore or recordstore is a joy. But I'm interested in browsing and serendipity online, too.

For instance, I found this post only because there was a hit in the referrer logs for my blog to this LISnews post mentioned us in the same breath. Which led me to Teachout's WSJ column which I now intend to look at tomorrow, something that wouldn't have happened in my browsing of the stacks, as I don't usually pick up the WSJ.

Ideally, a good library catalog would encourage browsing within the catalog, not as a replacement for physical browsing, but as a complement.

Anyway, nice post.