March 31, 2006
Findability, Library Catalogues and Serendipitous Discovery

Ken Varnum on RSS4Lib pointed out William McKeen's article, "The endangered joy of serendipity" in the St. Petersburg Times.

The article starts off by stating "The modern world makes it harder to discover what you didn't know you were looking for".

I'm not sure this is true at all and in fact, social software applications are actually increasing serendipitous discovery which I discuss in a my comment on the RRS4LIB.

One of William Keen's examples of the loss of serendipity is the library catalogue. I have to agree with him with whole heartedly. The state of most catalogues for effectively supporting information discovery beyond known item searching is bleak let alone supporting a rich browsing environment and serendipitous discoveries. It's no wonder when you talk to many library users that they first visit their favourite online bookstore to find or stumble upon three great books about X and then come to the library as a fulfillment mechanism.

Keen writes:

Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find - with an irritating hit or miss here and there - exactly what you're looking for. It's efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding. Inside, the book might be a loser, a waste of the effort and calories it took to remove it from its place and then return.

When a library catalogue or a digital library site offers just one means of discovery -- a search box (or boxes) and a stark list of search results that fails to expose the a multitude of relationships to other suggested resources, there is no doubt that this is not comparable to the "rich discovery environment" of visiting the physical library, looking up a book in a catalogue, wandering through the library, bumping into friends and neighbors with piles of books in hand, strolling past displays and exhibits, and then browsing the stacks.

We need to think about ways to improve findabiltiy and discoverability and plan for serendipitous discovery of library catalogues (digital or otherwise). Elaine Toms has stressed the need for digital libraries to factor serendipitous discovery into their planning and design in her paper, Serendipitous Information Retrieval.

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