I remember learning about information seeking behaviors in library school, how there were hunters seeking the perfect book to fill their information need; browsers who were aware of what they wanted but did not know the precise book they needed; and grazers who had no idea what they needed but trusted that if they looked through the stacks long enough, the right book would ‘find them’. Thirty years later, browsing and grazing seem like quaint behaviors since Google and Amazon have provided us with the ultimate ‘hunter’ tool – the search box.
The search box now dominates how we initiate and often end our information seeking behaviors because we all have devices at home, at work and in our pockets that return precise ‘hits’ when we search. This is incredibly efficient but at what cost? To me the cost is the loss of the magic of serendipity that happens when you find a book on the row above or adjacent to where the library catalog sent you. I have literally had the perfect book – one I needed but didn’t know existed - fall out off the shelf above where I was looking. There is nothing quite like the joy of discovering something in the cabinet of curiosities that comprise the stacks in a library. And it saddens me that we seem to have so little time anymore for discovering anything we are not looking for.
So it is with some excitement that I have been using the shelf browse function on our new Evergreen catalog because it takes me to virtually every shelf in any or all of the libraries of the Westchester Library System. For example when I find a book about outdoor survival and see it isn’t really what I want, I can scroll down on that page in the catalog and click on “shelf browser” (see below, left).
That launches a view (see right) of the titles to be found on either side of the dewey number for outdoor survival, in this case, 796.5. Before long, I find a book that is actually what I want. It has less to do with survival and more to do with how we humans can read signs in nature that can inform us of time, direction, weather and danger.
Shelf Browser isn’t perfect, but it does replicate the experience of browsing the stacks well enough that serendipity can happen even when you are sitting at your desk at home. I hope it will bring you that special smile when you find something you weren't really looking for!