Reimagining Browsing: Associative Discovery, Expanding Peer Definitions, and Embracing Serendipity: An ATG Hot Topics

by | Feb 5, 2019 | 0 comments

Courtney McAllister

By Courtney McAllister

When I worked in a public library, browsing was serious business. Creative displays were a high priority and seeing someone take a book from your display warranted behind-the-scenes librarian high fives. Programs like “Blind Date with a Book” were also leveraged to encourage people to try books or movies that might not typically appeal to them. Despite the programmatic push for promoting collections through browsing, it was a bit controversial when an older branch’s utilitarian shelving units were replaced with cases that held fewer books but included more display space on each shelf. Browsability of the stacks became a more pressing priority than maximizing the size of the library’s collections. However, the reduction in overall shelf space meant that more of the collection was housed in off-site storage, which actually made it more difficult for patrons to access those materials, let alone browse them. People were very passionate about what these changes would mean for browsing, usage, and the overall health of the print collections.

Browsing was not as high on the priority list when I transitioned to academia, though new books and popular reading were still displayed and promoted through various channels. Academic research tends to be (understandably) more focused than casual browsing can accommodate, but there was still a subtle appreciation for the power of serendipity in both research and general information gathering. Many of my colleagues recounted chance encounters with pieces of our collection that had led to unexpected personal or professional growth. We tried to replicate that potential for our users, too. Often, at the reference desk, we would show patrons where their sought after call number would be in the stacks and then encourage them to scan the general area of the shelves, in case other relevant titles jumped out at them. In the grand scheme of things, this was a minuscule gesture, but I think it was a subtle way to remind students and faculty that there was still value in just looking through the stacks, rather than exclusively selecting resources based on call number matches.

The concept of browsing assumes different forms, depending on your library’s user base, institutional priorities, and collections budget. Some libraries don’t have adequate space for displays, or primarily serve users who are predominantly off-site or virtual, which leads to some inevitable questions about how to adapt browsability to digital environments. Obviously, algorithm-based web-scale discovery layers are not conducive to random encounters like one might have while browsing physical shelves. As a result, other products are being introduced to augment the discovery experience and translate browsing into the digital environment. BrowZine is one example I’m aware of, and there are new discovery services like context engines that strive to bridge the gap between a standard search engine and more associative relationship mapping. It will be interesting to see how browsing and algorithmic query matching might coexist in a unified discovery layer.

While I have often thought about browsing in the context of library collections and resources, I have been contemplating how the concept might extend to other facets of LIS, such as professional development and peer-to-peer learning. When the time comes to sit down and formalize one’s professional goals for next year’s evaluation or review cycle, it can be tempting to focus exclusively on clearly defined educational opportunities or activities that are explicitly relevant to current roles and responsibilities. But how do we stay open enough to take advantage of the serendipitous encounters we idealize for library patrons and researchers? On some level, our profession acknowledges the potential impact of unexpected knowledge sharing and inspiration. Can we integrate that same browsing behavior into our work and development as information professionals?

In my mind, bringing browsing into professional development begins with reconsidering how we define our peers. My current title is Electronic Resources Librarian, so I tend to think of my peers as those who work in some flavor of electronic resource management, acquisitions, licensing, or metadata. But that rigid definition of “peer” might keep me from learning valuable things from colleagues who work in resource sharing, instruction, access services, digital preservation, etc. If I focus my peer definition on other academic librarians, that similarly precludes collaborative learning with those working in public, corporate, or medical libraries (just to name a few). Some of my most rewarding collaborations have been with a former colleague who works in instruction and assessment. We have very divergent responsibilities, but we often share useful insights with one another about project management, organizational culture, and general higher education trends. To some extent, I feel we browse one another’s knowledge and experiences, keeping an open mind about potential inspiration or applicable kernels of information. A few years ago, one of my former directors wisely suggested I start trying to learn more from our colleagues on the vendor/publisher side of the industry. Taking that advice to heart was one of the best things I’ve done as a librarian, and it has led to some fascinating conversations about trends and developments across the industry and scholarly communication landscape.

Next week, we’ll delve into other permutations of peer-to-peer learning. In the meantime, I’ll be mulling over questions like…

Questions to think about:

  • What are some other ways to re-define peers in LIS?
  • How can we pursue opportunities for less structured learning or information sharing when our organizations tend to privilege clearly defined development outcomes? How do we balance these two pressures?
  • How have serendipitous encounters impacted your own research or career path?

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