Digital environments provide many more opportunities for serendipity than print ones. Sure, there may be happy discoveries on the shelf or in a random group of items bound together. But the chances of happy discovery are multiplied in the web environment. Now, when I hear an argument based on serendipity, I usually assume that it really an assertion of a preference for one set of behaviors over another.
In this context, I was interested to read Steven Johnson’s discussion of serendipity from a few years back …
I find these arguments completely infuriating. Do these people actually use the web? I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books. With music blogs and iTunes, I’ve discovered more interesting new bands and albums in the past year than I did in all of my college years. I know radio has gotten a lot worse, but really — does anyone actually believe that radio was ever more diverse and surprising in its recommendations than surfing through the iTunes catalog or the music sites? [stevenberlinjohnson.com: Can We Please Kill This Meme Now]
Now, if you narrow the discussion to the library ‘before’ and ‘after’ the digital turn, we come back to the issue that library systems do not make their data work hard enough in service of discovery, routine or happy ….