Monday, July 01, 2013

The serendipitous fallacy, or the chimera of serendipity revisited ...

Oltre il libro | Beyond booksIn a June 23, 2013 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Unintentional Knowledge," Julio Alves (Director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning and of the Writing Program at Smith College) revisits the magical wonders of serendipitous discovery of information (nay, perhaps even knowledge) by the lone scholar wandering the stacks of physical libraries.

I tackled this subject a few years ago in "The Chimera of Serendipity" (9 April 2010), so I won't go into details on the serendipity part. Alves, however, throws a wrench on the monkey (as I heard the old saw malapropismatically given the other day) by saying that our reading habits are now degrading the nature of thought and scholarly output:
"Stack-based research produces more-original, creative work, as students make individual decisions about which texts to consult."
His argument here reminds me of those who claim memorization beats using Google to find information (see "Mnemosyne, human memory, and the wonder of our technological memory", 6 March 2011). Dear Dr. Alves, please provide data, not more anecdotes.

Alves continues:
"We need a greater awareness of what we are losing in overprivileging digital tools, and a better balance of digital practices and traditional ones. We must preserve the slower, more thoughtful approach to reading and writing. "
2008-05-23-dscn3816So now, to add to my chimera of serendipity, I add "the serendipitous fallacy". This is the belief, as to yet unsupported by data, that serendipity produces more original work. Of course, even if it could be proven, we know that the stacks (of subject or otherwise classified and organized books) are not truly serendipitous arrangements of information, but carefully organized and planned arrangements of information. In the US, those arrangements (subject-wise) tend to be LC Classification or Dewey Decimal. Long historic chains of better angels (catalogers) have preordained any serendipity the researcher believes they are finding.

Again, Alves argues (and I would thank those better angels who make this anecdote realistic):
"The library stacks are a mine of incidental knowledge ... After tracking down the call number, she sets off. On her way, she walks past a wealth of scholarship, some of which may catch her eye. Given her interest in social justice, she might stop and look at the section of books on Brazilian history and culture, which contains prominent titles on social justice. These opportunities for incidental learning happen multiple times on the way to her book."
2013.03.30-IMG_1249 Library data is a trove of human knowledge. Imagine that same first year student, she finds a reference to the book she wants does a "known item search" in one of our library's online public access catalogs (and there are still too many of these 20th century dinosaurs in our world) and it is there on the shelf. Sadly, many of the other sources Alves has our plucky freshman find are victims of lesser angels, perhaps even devils, who have put books on reserve or reference, or even carefully placed them in special collections or other subject or area reading rooms), checked them out (gasp! they might be reading them), or even (no, never!) mis-shelved them have created a different serendipity, that of loss and lacunae.


My Platonic freshman instead has access to not only the e-resources Alves cites, but also a datastore that is not limited by the bounds of a single institution's quirky history of collection building but by the bounds of the greater scholarly output.

The only truly serendipitous library is Borges' "Library of Babel", and in that library, the finding of knowledge was subjugated to the books themselves:
2013.03.30-IMG_1255
"I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter. Epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned suicides, more and more frequent with the years. Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species -- the unique species -- is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret." - Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel"




1 comment:

MASRT said...

Seriously amazing discoveries @ your library, online