A colleague forwarded me a link to an essay (“The Endangered Joy of Serendipity“) published in the St. Petersburg Times on March 26. In this essay, William McKeen, a journalism professor at the University of Florida, discusses what he describes as the loss of context that has come with Google, RSS aggregators, and much of the Internet. McKeen requires his freshman journalism class to subscribe to the paper version of the New York Times because readers of the online version will only find what they’re looking for.
So what’s the problem with finding what you’re looking for? McKeen writes,
I agree with McKeen that serendipity is a wonderful thing. Heck, if you look at my career path to date (from Soviet Studies to archivist to techy librarian in just 12 years), you’ll understand what I mean. But as our search tools get better — and our RSS feeds get more specific — what are we missing in life? McKeen writes,
This brings to the surface something I’ve noticed only subconsciously — I rarely stumble on really cool web sites anymore. Back in the day (the first years of the web, 1993-1997), I would often find myself doing a web search on AltaVista and getting all sorts of hits that were something much better than utterly wrong: they were interesting. Now that I use Google (or today’s AltaVista, for that matter), I don’t find myself stumbling down the “wrong” path nearly so often. And when I do, it’s not nearly wrong enough to be good.
The same is true with the feeds I’ve chosen to put in to my aggregator. While there’s still some opportunity for serendipity in the not-so-random choices of my favorite bloggers, it’s limited serendipty. By subscribing to feeds, I’m picking my headlines in advance, and somehow feel I’m missing good stuff. Even my keyword search feeds in Technorati and Bloglines are narrow (I haven’t struck the balance between specific enough to be manageable and broad enough to be interesting). Again, I’m not necessarily looking for good stuff that’s germane, but good stuff that makes me stop and think.
Which brings me, circuitously, to the role of libraries and librarians. As we build information systems to enable “Library 2.0,” we must remain cognizant of overtuning the system. I certainly don’t want to find just exactly what I’m looking for all the time. There are occasions — frequently — when I’m browsing and want to learn something orthogonal to my actual question. I just don’t realize it until I’ve found the catty-corner path and gone down it. I suppose this is not that much different from the shift from card catalog to OPAC, but it’s still a shift.
If we do not help people find what they didn’t know they were looking for, we will, to quote McKeen again,