Browsing as Problem

I have long been fond of a 2010 article in American Libraries by Donald Barclay entitled “The Myth of Browsing.” Writing in reaction to faculty opposition to offsite storage of books and journals, Barclay pointed out that open stacks date back only to about 1940. He reminded readers that browsers are perusing whatever small segment of the information universe is owned by their library, that books can be shelved in only one place even if they cover many topics or perspectives, and that the most popular books are likely to be checked out. As a result, he compared browsing to “hitting the sale tables on day three of a three-day sale.” I would add the caveat that shelf browsing entirely misses ebooks (in Davidson’s case, more than 700,000 of them) and, of course, any information in journal articles, DVDs, online media, and government documents. At Davidson, our split collection doubles the work of browsing; to do a thorough job, one would really need to browse both the LC and Dewey collections.

Now comes Patrick Carr’s new essay in College & Research Libraries, “Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery,” in which the author asserts that what users regard as successful browsing is, in fact, a problem. The mystique of browsing, Carr claims, leads users to downplay or ignore the effects of non-serendipitous factors in their success. Two in particular are the intellectual preparedness and effort of the person doing the browsing and the designed environment of library stacks.

To succeed at browsing, a person needs a flexible mind and some prior knowledge. Without schemata, the searcher cannot make connections between the accidental discovery and the information originally sought. Developing schemata requires doing the hard work of learning, but, once that mental framework is created, it’s easy to act as if it had always been there. Successful browsing may feel like an unanticipated gift, but the knowledge that the person had developed previously helped to make it possible.

Similarly, it is easy—especially for people who have spent a great deal of time in libraries—to overlook the contribution of classification schemes. As Carr puts it, “To navigate through the stacks is to navigate through an environment that has been meticulously designed. Here we find ourselves in a vast and complex grid of ordered shelves. Here we find that on each shelf rest long rows of ordered volumes. And here we find each volume labeled with an alphanumeric code that attempts to map the volume’s position both within the library’s collection and within knowledge as a whole…. To use the catalog, the stacks, and the items that are shelved there is to interact with intricately structured information architectures that have been designed to solve specific problems for their user community.” (p. 836)

I’m not opposed to browsing—truly. I’m troubled by the reverence with which some people speak of it, and I think Carr makes some excellent points. I’m well aware that a researcher can both search and browse; the two are not mutually exclusive. Still, I’m inclined to agree with Brian Mathews: “I would rather teach students to be good searchers instead of lucky ones.” I also hope for technology to develop that enables browsing of the bigger information universe, regardless of format. Can searching and browsing somehow be combined to enable recall, precision, and serendipity? I believe there are librarians working on this, and I am eager to see what they’ll come up with.

I’m proud that the Association of College and Research Libraries, the professional organization of academic librarians, has practiced what it preaches by making its flagship journal open access. That means that Carr’s essay is free for anyone to read by following the link above. I encourage anyone interested in browsing to read his erudite and provocative article.