“a love letter to libraries and archives”

If you haven’t found Bethany Nowviskie’s keynote at dh2014, I recommend it. Strongly.

As she began her talk (vicariously), I overheard these whispers on twitter:

Brian Croxall: “It makes perfect sense that @nowviskie works in a library and prompts us to think about end points of our work.”

Chris Bourg: “yes. I was thinking this talk is a love letter to libraries & archives so far.”

(Brian is the DH strategist at Emory and Chris is a feral AUL at Stanford)

Some threads of dh2014* really do feel to me like a flurry of billets doux to the people Bethany modestly (self)describes as caretakers.

In particular, this conversation on libraries and serendipity seems to me both timeless and timely:

Brian Croxall started a backchannel conversation, “I think it must be said that many scholars romanticize serendipity in their work. It’s a narrative of nostalgia.”

Chris Bourg shot back, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Michael Widner jumped in, “I still find stack-based serendipity crucial my own research. Lots of books I’d never have found otherwise.”

Brian: “In my opinion, calling it “serendipity” in stacks also obscures years of cataloging labor putting things next to each other.”

Chris: “Do you mean you think that the scholars over-emphasize the role of serendipity, or the researchers [librarians] do? (or both?)”

Brian: “I wonder if it’s possible to measure the number of documents actually found that way. It IS important.” And then he added, “I think when asked about these things, there’s a tendency to over-report the importance of serendipity.”

Chris: “In my opinion, the number of documents would not be the best measure. Serendipity is by definition a rare, but impactful, occurrence.”

Jean Bauer interjects: “Memories of serendipitous discoveries in physical stacks are example of Black Swan Theory. Rarely happens but very memorable.”

Brian: “Yes. But… the impact that it has probably makes for a larger memory of it.”

Chris: “And I think it’s especially stack-based serendipity that gets played up. We don’t talk about social networks this way.”

Brian: “I think we are just getting there with online serendipity … it is still much newer phenomena than physical.”

Chris: “Sure, like church attendance… But it is clearly important in some subjective way to scholars…”

Brian: “Absolutely. We need to preserve it. I’m just suspicious of some of these interviews. ;)”

Chris: “Sure, but fairly robust findings – surveys, interviews, etc. – all show many scholars attached to ideal of serendipity. This is one of very few consistent things scholars say is important; and then librarians say “meh, that’s just nostalgia.””

Doug Reside: “I guess the question is whether targeted browsing is sometimes called “serendipity.””

Brian: “Right. Is an MLA Bibliography search ever understood as serendipity? Does interface determine what we think counts?”

Chris: “How much does physicality effect the affective experience of something as “serendipitous”?”

Brian: “Yes. I think that’s the key.”

It’s hard to tell when visiting a DH ‘neighborhood’ in Lausanne via snippets of video and twitter, but perhaps this conversation might have been prompted by the serendip-o-matic, or a paper on interviews with researchers about serendipitous discoveries? If I have it right, Brian Greenspan and Kim Martin are creating a “tool for physical libraries to encourage serendipity and to link to digital resources.” As one tweet put it, from another perspective the tool could be thought of as “augmenting the positive aspects of distraction.”

Mo Engel, from the University of Alberta, wondered on twitter: “Can we program serendipity?” (Which, maybe, has been a conundrum for librarians since, oh, say, Cutter’s Principles?)

"The sixty-three species depicted in Gone have all become extinct since the 1700s and the colonization of the New World." http://isabellakirkland.com/paintings/taxa-gone.html

“The sixty-three species depicted in Gone have all become extinct since the 1700s and the colonization of the New World.” http://isabellakirkland.com/paintings/taxa-gone.html

*This week I did a bit of remote listening to this annual conference of an international alliance of organizations for digital scholarship that hail from Canada, Japan, Australia, Europe and other parts of the globe, including the US.

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About Jennifer Schaffner

Jennifer Schaffner is a Program Officer with the OCLC Research Library Partnership. She works with the rare books, manuscripts and archives communities. She joined RLG/OCLC Research in August of 2007.

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