Open the Stacks!


Of all the asinine arguments against the Internet, the silliest is the idea that looking things up online somehow eliminates serendipity. This notion has been floating around the ether for years now, repeated ad nauseum by people who clearly have never done a Google search in their lives; I don't know if it's even necessary to respond to them, but Steven Johnson has done a fine job of explaining the obvious:

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.

Speaking of libraries: I wish some of those Save Serendipity warriors would stop wasting their time denouncing the Internet and start going after libraries with closed stacks. Asking a librarian to fetch a book for you is like hitting the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button.

NEXT: How Government Medicine Really Works - British Edition

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  1. Heh. One of my favorite answers to “I’m bored” is to hit the “Random Page” button on Wikipedia. A lot of the time, what comes up is dreck, but sometimes… you hit something golden.

    I mentioned this to a young friend of mine, and she said that she does the same thing, so I’m pretty sure that I’m not completely weird in this respect. 🙂

  2. try

    it’s like tivo for the internet, and has some cool random link features

  3. Anyone who ever had to actually do a research search among the bound journals in the basement of a college library to write up a paper on some silly third year experiment would not be asking this question.

  4. I couldn’t be further on the opposite end of the serendippy argument. I’m a Gen-Xer, and libraries SUCKED! Yeah, going to some moldy public building and HOPING to find a book was SO MUCH BETTER than the Internet today.

    These poor kids today. They will never know what it is like to mine information from some 20-year-old book with penises drawn on the pages.

  5. ..or is that “peni”?

    I should ask my Latin wife.

  6. Penes. It’s third-declension.

  7. I’m a Gen-Xer, and libraries SUCKED! Yeah, going to some moldy public building and HOPING to find a book was SO MUCH BETTER than the Internet today.

    I was in college just when the internet was starting to catch on, so I still had to make regular use of the library. I spent so much time there one semester, working on 2 research papers, that I had a nightmare about a haunted library. It was one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had.

    Needless to say, I was thrilled the next semester when I had a much lighter load of library work.

  8. Back in the day, before you kiddies use the Internets, there was a site called Yahoo! They had a categorization of damn near everything on the Internets, compiled by fleshy robots.

    The coolest thing they had was a pair of fuzzy dice labeled “Random Site”, which would take you to a site randomly selected from their entire catalog.

    Of course, the Internets only just had gotten the IntarWeb on them in them days, so the likelihood of finding some cool site about spiders or a funky computer philosophy major was much higher than today, when it will get you a site for penis-enlargement pills.

    Damn you kids and your Google and your small penes! *shakes fist uselessly*

  9. Strangely, I don’t feel the need to repudiate the Internet or libraries at this time. I do a lot of legal research on the web, but, sometimes, good old books are the better tool. Depends on what I’m looking for and how much I know about the topic. This applies to nonlegal research, as well, of course.

  10. I wrote my entire masters thesis in 1996 and barely visited a library. If I wrote it now, I doubt I would have to at all. That contrasts with my senior thesis in college spent in the basement of a large university library. Yeah, sitting at home on my parents’ deck listening to music drinking coffee was so much worse than being in a dark dank library having those serendipity moments.

  11. Pro,

    You can’t beat flipping through a code book and looking at the annotations. Also, the legal search engines, while nice, only work if you can think like the people who wrote them. Without the perfect search term, you can miss stuff. The old West key numbers and digests sometimes work the best. I think I may be one of the last people to go to law school and actually learn how to use a digest. I bet someoen in law school today has no idea what they are.

  12. Anyone who wants a week’s worth of serendipity can get it in twenty minutes of following H&R’s meandering threads. 😉

    The main roadblock to serendipity is behind the reader’s eye, not in front of it.

  13. I accept all of what you say. It is true things on the whole are better. But they are different, and that difference has cost me personally.

    Using the card catalog was a skill. By the time I entered college I rivaled librarians in my mastery of it. I learned countless tricks to find information. For instance, if I couldn’t find a book about what I was looking for, I looked up books on related topics and then looked in their bibliographies. Sometimes I even found stuff by going to the stacks and simply turning around, looking through the books on the adjacent shelf to where I was looking.

    So what’s more efficient? Running back and forth between the stacks and the card catalog in a seven floor library, or searching for key words with Google? It’s a no brainier, I could spend hours looking for stuff before, now I give up in frustration if I can’t find something in minutes. But here’s the thing, kids today can Google my ass to Tuesday and back. I use to have an edge, now I’m at a disadvantage. And the serendipity thing is true for me too, I use to find all kinds of stuff because I spent lots of time looking through all kinds of stuff. Now if I don’t find exactly what I’m looking for, I search again.

  14. John,

    Surname Henry, perchance?

  15. The Uncle Sam link in Gillespie’s next post is enough to put this idea to rest.

  16. I love libraries, and as long as the stacks are open I think there’s a ton of serendipity to be found in them. I’ve frequently had the experience of chasing down a book, then discovering that there’s another tome one shelf above it that I’ve never heard of before that’s actually much more useful and/or interesting.

    What’s ridiculous is the idea that Google doesn’t provide the same experience all the time. Arguments like McKeen’s are persuasive only to people who have no idea how a search engine works.

  17. I actually don’t particularly like libraries any more – they have become such rallying points for public-spending boondoggles that it’s hard for me to spend time in them, and provide them with even fractional justification for yet another expansion, yet another new building, yet another “our library is smaller than theirs” pissing match.

    However, I do just love going into bookstores and wandering those stacks — I suspect that I get a pretty similar experience, without all of the angst engendered by supporting just another tax-dollar sink.

  18. Clean Hands,

    I know what you are talking about. Yesterday I went to the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library to look for Joann Sfar graphic novels (on the weekend I read my brother’s copy of “Vampire Loves” and quite enjoyed it) and some irritating guy kept asking every person who walked by the elevators if they would “write a letter to help save the library– we are suffering severe budget cuts!”

  19. Anon,

    No, if it was I think that would make me the owner of the Boston Red Sox and so rich I would be hanging out in Aruba or Bali or somewhere like that having too much fun to be posting on Reason. But alas I am not.

  20. Yes, Google can be great for serendipity. On the other hand, I’ve never accidentally stumbled into a photo of a woman giving head to a horse while looking for information on the French Revolution in the public library. So, I give libraries that point.

  21. See? Google is GREAT for serendipity. Who even knew that was possible, before stumbling across it with SafeSearch turned off?

  22. Tangentially interesting to this discussion: the new Vinge novel, ‘Rainbows End’, has to do with the digitization of libraries.

    It’s not as good as the Zones of Thought stuff — it’s a long way from Deepness in the Sky — but it’s a neat near-future, near-singularity setting.

  23. On the other hand, I’ve never accidentally stumbled into a photo of a woman giving head to a horse while looking for information on the French Revolution in the public library.

    personally i think that should be the official symbol of the French revolution….that ad nasium picture of a buxom woman on a hill with her breasts leaping out of her shirt is just so….well working class.

  24. Cogley: You Kirk?
    Kirk: Yes. What is all this?
    STC: I figure we’ll be spending some time together, so I moved in. I hope I’m not crowding you. What’s the matter? Don’t you like books?
    JTK: Oh, I like them fine, but a computer takes less space.
    STC:[Scoffs] A computer, huh? I got one of these in my office. Contains all the precedents, a synthesis of all the great legal decisions written throughout time. I never use it.
    JTK: Why not?
    STC: I’ve got my own system. Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something– my library.
    Thousands of books.
    JTK: What would be the point?
    STC: This is where the law is, not in that homogenized, pasteurized, synthesized– Do you want to know the law, the ancient concepts in their own language, Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha 3? Books!
    JTK: You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who’s escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney-at-law.
    STC: Right on both counts.

  25. You know, all that old law might not help so much when trying cases before a Starfleet tribunal. Or a Federation court, for that matter. Really, it’s a wonder Kirk got off. Lucky that that guy he tried to murder didn’t actually die, ’cause his lawyer was an anachronistic fruitcake.

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