Thoughtful Serendipity

As I was rocking out to some new music I’d stumbled across, I started thinking about how often user behavior has nothing to do with specific goals. Often, when you are performing research, you have an objective of finding specific information. If you have a citation, you are generally traveling on a straight line from point A to point B, where you retrieve that specific document. As you get further and further away from that specific data point, moving into keywords, terms of art, and general concepts, you are more and more likely to come across information you had not anticipated finding. You might actually come across things you didn’t know even existed, which can be exciting when they offer new ways of thinking about your core research. How often have you come across that exciting moment, that serendipity of finding something unexpected when you weren’t looking for it?  

What Are You Looking At?

The example I was experiencing was listening to Flogging Molly‘s Drunken Lullabies.  I often wander over to the Toronto Public Library’s City Hall branch, which is on the same block as my own library.  It is a small branch and you would not use it if you were really looking for something.  Most of the people I talk to use it the same way as me; we look at their online catalog, find what we are looking for, and have it delivered from whichever other branch has it.

Sometimes I’ll wander over without any particular goal, especially when I am returning something I have borrowed, and look through the carousels of music CDs.  Just like the old days, when I would go into Wazoo Records in Ann Arbor and troll through their vinyl offerings, I flip through the discs, recognizing few of the artists and often stopping only at an unusual name or album cover.  Most cases go right back on the carousel, and some I take home.  Most of those get a short playing and go in the return immediately pile.  But every so often, I find something totally unexpected, like Flogging Molly.

It’s not just that it is really enjoyable music.  I also happen to be a huge Pogues (and Shane McGowan and the Popes) fan.  It wasn’t until I was reading the Drunken Lullabies liner notes, though, that I had ever heard of the genre of Celtic Rock, although it was clear to me that the Pogues and Flogging Molly shared some lineage.

So how to explain that I loved the band that arguably started this genre but had only heard of followers, like Flogging Molly or the Black 47s, by chance?

It made me think more about how people use libraries and the Web.  Obviously, no one person uses information exactly the same in each circumstance.  How often do people find what they are looking for, when they are not looking for it?  We (people in libraries) talk about the serendipity of walking up to a shelf and seeing related items together.  That’s the benefit of the Dewey or Library of Congress classification systems, which organize similar things.  Online catalogs can sometimes do the same thing – well, they can if you can figure out how to use them AND they work properly – so that you can get a virtual look at related items.

Inspector Morse talks about lateral thinking in one of his cases, The Last Bus to Woodstock.  The concept struck me as useful if you are looking for something and not finding it.  Sometimes I find that a thought trail about X runs into a dead end and I am wasting time continuing to think about it.  If I move on to topic Y, which may or may not be related, sometimes I’ll suddenly get a mental interruption with an idea that will move me on the line on which X is stuck.

Thoughtful serendipity is what I think of when you are looking for something but in a general way, and you come across the right Web site or book or person without expecting it to be there.  Thoughtful has the more common usage of being kind, so perhaps what I’m really getting at is mindfulness, or being deliberate.

I’m more interested in thoughtless serendipity, though.  When you are not looking for something, without being mindful or thoughtful, and you find something, what does that mean?  How can someone providing information improve the likelihood that not only will the information be found when it is sought but also when it is not being sought?

If you are not looking for something, whether it is percolating in the back of your mind, or you are deliberately looking around it rather than at it as with lateral thinking, finding it can still be hugely helpful.  If a Web site has used metadata to describe its content both in the way it is viewed, and has used optimization tools to ensure the content is accessible to search engines, does that improve the chances that it will be found when it is not being sought?

The more I think about this, the more I think I need to spend a bit of time looking for nothing, just as I consciously carve out time to avoid e-mail and communication to be able to think.  I guess this is mindful to the extent that it is a specific goal to find something unspecific.  RSS readers are useful for this, because you often do not know what will appear although your selection of subscriptions limits the scope somewhat.  You still need to start with something – a keyword, or a quick review of an online newspaper or magazine, and let that get you started.  Or walk into your local library and poke around and see what’s on the new arrivals shelf!

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.