Reflections for Serendipitous Discovery in Analog and Digital Libraries

In an ad-hoc library at a refugee camp recently, I counted 36 copies of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the English-language adult psychology section. There was a psych class nearby, and many of the teenagers who came by were in the habit of making a shamefaced stop by the children’s section to pick up English-as-a-second-language practice materials. The librarian decided to place the set–wholesale donated from an English-speaking classroom–randomly among the textbooks, making it easy for a teenage student to stay in “their” section rather than the kids’ and read. And they did: all 36 wore the telltale frequent-reader accordion in their spines, beaming out at me like laugh lines.

Back home, I sought out those laugh lines in my own library and tipped the oldies they belonged to out into my hands. As a tween, I’d talked myself into a fever of self-congratulatory tastefulness about my favorite books: they were expressions of my acumen, my individuality! But in the camp, I confronted how few of us are really choosing what we read after all. If we’re lucky enough to have a creative, observant librarian like the one I met, what we might do well with is being placed in our path. And if we’re not, our individuality might actually be blocking us, and the architecture of our libraries is just rolling smoothly around the blockage.

But there’s a certain romance to the image of a young person choosing a book. We hear it and we think of play: of purposeless vectors of discovery that are exploratory, creative, spontaneous, inspired. Of course, they’re also often hilariously utilitarian: I’ve done enough ethnographies of young people picking books to be humbled by a book-picking answer like “No one wiped their hands on it,” which on the scale of favorite-book answers is like someone saying they were drawn to the love of their life because he had a face.

No, it’s not choice, but serendipity that draws students to the books that click. But what is serendipity in a library, exactly? What is it about analog libraries that’s so conducive to it, and how can we replicate that for modern students in the digital environments we read in now? As a digital librarian, I want to invite us to consider serendipity’s potential to generate empathy, to imagine students’ ability to create it in any library, and to share a few ways for educators to start sieving it out of the places where our students find information–shelf to search bar.

Serendipity and Empathy

To understand the relationship between serendipitous discovery in libraries and empathy, we head back to the antecedent of the Prelinger library, the anti-Holocaust German librarian Aby Warburg and his “law of the good neighbor:” a somewhat flippant idea that the book you needed at any given moment wasn’t the one that conventional categorization mechanisms would guide you towards, but the one next to it, which you may not have been inclined to pick up. He was dead serious about it, and the Warburg Collection today is still organized on these precepts to encourage playful exploration, animated by random classification schemes like “chaos” and “time.”

It sounds hokey now, but the Warburg Library was a bold experiment, founded on the idea that how we related to the information we encountered was what would determine whether we were able to relate with empathy towards each other. It was intended to spur a new way of looking not just at the way we relate to each other and to information, but to history: jolting young people in and out of social consciousness at different scales. In that sense it’s an expression of the dream of many librarians to create a collection of information that encourages vulnerable members of society, such as young people, to explore it in a way that forces empathy through disorientation, that doesn’t itself serve as a force strong enough to resist authoritarianism but kindles that force from within its readers. It’s about activism as response: if young people knew, the reasoning goes, and if what they knew were presented to them outside the authoritarian classification systems the adults in their lives have used to restrict their imagination, how could they not respond passionately?

Pretty easily, as it turns out: as education sociologist Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom says, students in transitional stages of their lives are apt to perceive their ZPD as a discomfort zone, and if left to autodidact their way through their education, will often avoid the topics that fall within it, such as the complex questions of history, privilege, racism, and civic sense that give rise to empathy:

“Calls to ‘unbundle’ the university never talk about what happens…when we only learn what makes us comfortable…The promise of market models of education is that student-customers can build their own degree from a buffet of choices. But the buffet is heavy on science and math classes, and light on courses like humanities and social science where structural racism, sexism, and classicism are taught…Learning is–should often be–uncomfortable for individuals.”   

Advocates still believe serendipitous discovery is a uniquely effective way to develop empathy, and a way to produce a sense of civic cohesion among learners without subjecting them to a standardized curriculum. In his history of digital search, Search Engine Society, Alexander Halavais analyzes younger and older students’ behavior with regards to information-finding and speaks glowingly of its abilities to promote learners’ senses of agency, responsibility, opacity, connectedness, humility, and interdependence. After all, students engaging in serendipitous discovery aren’t following a “learning pathway” or “playlist” or anything else so easily trackable. They’re playing hopscotch: the way they get from one place to another can’t be mined or monetized. In Fantasies of the Library, Schnapp and Turpin  extol the magic that happens when young people are able to learn against the hegemonic grain of taxonomy, fitting their needs around a structure, and they are open to not knowing what they know until they know it: all building blocks of a civic, empathetic sensibility towards assimilating new information.

There are two ideas at work here, both of which are equally appealing to educators who are interested on a grand scale in creative, empathetic learning, and on a smaller scale in students continuing to have wonderful collection collisions. One is that serendipitous encounters exempt students from excessive authoritarian intervention, allowing curiosity to direct their information behavior in a way that cannot be monetized. The second is that without some type of reflection, guidance, or structure, the total randomness of digital libraries and unchecked autodidacticism can exacerbate privilege and actually erode student empathy.

So what type of structure, precisely, is it that can transpose the benefits of analog libraries for serendipity, and of serendipity for empathy, into digital libraries?

Serendipity and Reflection

We library enthusiasts can get weepy about the sentimental lightning rod of the physical book, but it doesn’t have to be more inherently conducive to serendipitous encounters than the digital book. What’s important is the way books exist and are engaged with within libraries, both analog and digital. As we know from the Warburg Library and others, serendipity is born from two things: the fact that information exists within a context understandable to students, and the existence of a way, through their actions, for them to transcend that structure. Even the humblest library, possessed of those characteristics, can serve as a complete history of ways of knowing that are fundamentally other. That makes the serendipitous library a laboratory for empathy. 

Young people are both completely at the mercy of library designers and more liberated than fully mature readers, in their relative disorientation and freedom from what Halavais calls the narrow utilitarianism of the adult searcher, so the way they do this can be as free or as fettered as we make it. It’s up to us whether we allow them to share in the precious responsibility of making sense of the information they receive themselves, and in understanding the multiplicity of ways in which other readers, other human beings, have done so in turn. Ultimately, encouraging serendipity in digital libraries should be about helping young people constantly expose themselves to information that will broaden, not reinforce, their worldviews.

Within a digital library, one way of encouraging that is to provide opportunities for reflection as parents and educators, in order to help make the machinery of how these libraries work and what it means to browse in them more visible to students, the way that of an analog library is.

Below are seven reflection guidelines for parents and educators to help students move more serendipitously through their digital library world. The questions within them could be used as writing exercises after engaging with digital libraries, or simple prompts for peer reflection between students who are bored of browsing, or even ideas for parents while watching students browse in casual contexts, like on drives or while at restaurants.

  1. Establish the rules of the context

It may appear at first glance that browsing in digital libraries is always completely free, but it’s not the case. Young students are in fact situated within an ambient information environment whose rules are not always clear, namely the internet, and its very ubiquity in the design of most digital libraries makes it harder for them to identify the context that their browsing is intended to transcend. As Audrey Watters describes in A Domain of One’s Own, educators and parents working with educational repositories should develop familiarity with the way students are taught to trade information on the internet, but don’t need to validate the mechanisms used to do so (for instance, likes and upvotes). Ensuring this type of ability to opt-out of the ubiquity of the internet’s present design–to learn in a zone that makes its rules clear but doesn’t operate according to them–frees students to step out of the satisficing mindset often used for internet browsing, and to tap into their own criteria for how to navigate.

Parents and teachers can facilitate this by identifying which parts of students’ reading workflows are taking place on the internet, and then complicating them by taking them offline and off devices: for instance, helping students select a book online and then preview it in person at a library, rather than using an image previewer, or using a list of videos and ordering them randomly rather than by enforced popularity rankings. 

  • – Questions to reflect on context with students include:
    • – Where do you think these materials came from?
    • – Who do you think might have read this before you?
    • – Why do you think that this book was shown to you, and not another one? 
    • – What do you think happens to something that doesn’t get rated?
  1. Establish ways to opt out of the navigation system

 Adapting and shifting the way information is categorized, and navigating in a way other than the way the system is designed, are both ways of moving serendipitously that are in conflict with the inherently authoritarian project of total organization. The more rigid the navigation of a digital library is, the more it encourages new students to make snap judgments about material’s usefulness and relevance, and to attempt to leverage the ability to filter to avoid the process of engaging with enough material to develop the more sophisticated and personal selection mechanisms which can develop empathy. 

But mechanisms such as filtering only provide the illusion of opting out. They’re actually direct compliance with the navigational system. In contrast, in physical libraries, there’s a lot of ease to opting out of the navigational system by simply selecting at random, walking around, or opening books arbitrarily. Despite analog libraries’ reputations for rules, it’s actually direct compliance with their navigational systems which is rare–the exact opposite of a digital library! After all, how many young people do you know who know exactly how to use a library “properly?”

One way for parents and teachers to develop that navigational flexibility is to encourage students to generate their own personal schemes for information organization, grouping digital or physical objects in their own manner or driving them to identify common themes between seemingly dissimilar objects that draw their attention. Helping students understand what captures their attention and why enables them not only use navigation well, but to opt out of it when they need to, towards serendipity.

  • – Questions to encourage navigating more freely include:
    • – How did you find that? 
    • – How many materials do you think are on this page? How much of it do you think you’ve found? 
    • – Do you think this belongs in this category? Where would you put it? 
    • – Do the things in your favorites have anything in common?
    • – Let’s say you wanted to find the opposite of this. How would you go about doing that?
  1. Expose–don’t deny–the sources of authority

 As sources of authority, making the rules by which we operate visible is the only way to invite students into dialogue with us. Many digital libraries, in attempting to make the process of information selection marginally faster in the early stages, deny students the opportunity to practice recognizing when they’re being imposed upon. And because of this dissociation from the context in which information is situated, students suffer from the dangerous condition of being unable to recognize authority when it’s being applied, and understanding where a boundary is restricting their view of the world in a way they may wish to avoid. 

Serendipity is about transcendence, and transcendence can’t always occur in such conditions because a young person who has been taught to consider the invisible authorities of digital mediation simply “the way the world works” or “how it is” is under the mistaken illusion that they already have complete freedom, and there’s nothing to transcend. In contrast, in an analog library, the presence of very visible authority sources–the librarian, the authors of the books, the collections–make it evident that a structure is being imposed. In order to help younger students avoid this, parents and educators can make authority–in the form of how information is chosen to be included in the library, how it is organized, and what drove the platform to recommend it to them–visible and understandable.

  • – Questions to help expose the sources of authority:
    • – Who do you think included this material here? Why?
    • – Can you think of something that you’d put here that’s missing?
    • – Do you think [an offline source the student already knows] could go here? 
    • – Did you like the recommendation you just got? Do you think your friend/sibling/parent would like it too?
    • – Imagine you got to make your own rules for what to include here. What would you put?
  1. Expand options, don’t eliminate them, at the point of student frustration

In the physical library, the existence of bookshelves, the possibility of browsing, serves as as a viable point of clarification that makes serendipitous discovery a possible outlet for students’ frustrations. But in most digital libraries, the search bar and the link list are the only places to turn when clarification is needed. These options purport to help students drill down into the corpus in the moment of frustration. 

That potentially saves time. But it’s a disaster for serendipitous discovery, which actually takes place in the moment when the field of possible “correct” options is expanded, not narrowed, by reducing the pressure on the student to find something that will fulfill their immediate criteria. 

Parents and educators are well-positioned to interrupt that moment of frustration. Learning to recognize student frustration with search–whether it’s more options, time, guidance, or distraction that might be needed–is the best way to divert student attention towards a library, and this is well accomplished by those who love students enough to recognize their body language and signs of inattention.

  • – Questions to expand options at the point of frustration:
    • – Let’s find a few more places where that word/concept appears before looking it up.
    • – Do you think anyone else has written about the same thing in a different way? 
    • – Do you think this might be more easy to understand as a video/in text/some other way?
    • – Why don’t you sample a few of these first before filtering them down? 
    • – Has this author written anything else? 
  1. Encourage contemplative concentration

In an analog library, the physical mode of delivery–the book–has a great advantages over digital media in promoting serendipity: the potential of deep contemplative immersion that comes from its nature as an object of art, not just an “educational object.” It has a lot of dimensions of interest–texture, shape, associations, colors, form, place, community–all of which facilitate the subtle pattern recognition that renders students receptive to serendipitous discovery, and which in turn facilitates the openness and curiosity that undergirds empathy. Essentially, contemplative concentration is the information equivalent of encouraging students to chew their food properly, and it’s just as critical!

For educators, creating this sort of juxtaposition through the blending of radically different subjects, media (playing music and reading at the same time, for instance), and non-traditional subject matter can help students contemplate and verbalize their deep perception and experience of something they’re encountering, and eventually apply this to their digital learning objects as well.

  • – Questions to encourage contemplative concentration:
    • – Did you notice anything in particular about the way that was written? 
    • – What kind of illustrations would you add to that? 
    • – How would you summarize that in three sentences? In ten? In a page? 
    • – What would you write about that in a letter or email? What if you had to give a speech about it? 
    • – Why don’t you just read one paragraph of that today? 
  1. Encourage students to select holistically

Remember the peritextual elements of a book? Preparing digital libraries for serendipitous discovery relies on understanding what type of additional information, appended to a learning object, sparks a student’s interest. While many digital libraries rely on trying to get this “right” on the first try through extensive filtering mechanisms, encouraging excerpting and previewing, rather than filtering down, would likely be more helpful in teaching students to make associations in the long run that will help them understand their own tastes and the availability of learning objects in the world.

The greatest service educators can provide to assist with this? Simply encouraging students to appreciate a piece of media independent of its “usefulness,” bearing in mind that a fundamental aspect of serendipity as it develops empathy is the idea that students don’t always know what they don’t know, or what would open up their minds. 

  • – Questions to help select more holistically include:
    • – What was it about, if it wasn’t about what you wanted?
    • – Who do you think would find it interesting?
    • – What could another work about the same subject do to make this more interesting for you?
    • – What’s something you liked about this, even if it wasn’t relevant?
    • – Why wasn’t it good? Can you think of something you like that doesn’t have that quality either (e.g., if they say it was too long, is there something they liked that is long as well)?
  1. Create spaces where no one needs to “progress”

 Within an analog library, the “vector” of students’ progress is largely opaque: what they plan to do with it, beyond reading it, is quite unclear. Because of this, educators are unable to explicitly steer students towards certain results (which, of course, may have its positives and negatives). But the digital library is different: with its relentless ability to quantify student engagement through time, progress, tracking, social, and other metrics, the “success” of a learning object is often standardized, and more students directed towards that learning object regardless of whether it is actually appropriate for them or not. 

Educators can circumvent the deadening effect of metrics on serendipitous discovery simply by realizing when metrics-based discovery is not appropriate, and disabling or toggling it where applicable in order to re-introduce a random element. It must be understood that serendipitous discovery is operating in part on the student’s own needs and desires. Helping those desires emerge, helping students articulate them where they may be subconscious, or simply observing and voicing patterns after watching students engage in their patterns is a great way to fight the inappropriate usage of metrics in student libraries.  

  • – Questions to create freer spaces include:
    • – Why do you think this is so popular? 
    • – What would your ranking of these things be?
    • – Imagine you didn’t need to learn anything. What would you read? 
    • – What kind of things do you wish this library had? 
    • – Let’s try sampling a few resources randomly and picking what to read based on that, without knowing what the title or description is. 
Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in C) Grades 6-8, Community Voices, D) Grades 9-12, Social-Emotional Learning

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