Ode to Serendipity
By David Novak
As we search the internet, do seek the fruits of serendipity?
Several conversations in the last month have lamented the hit and miss nature of searching the internet. Occasional successes prove the quality of information, but so much of the nature of these successes is not reducible.
Reliance on serendipity is not good for you.
Fortunately, we need not search the internet armed with serendipity. The internet's bookshelves have not collapsed inward, piling the books and articles and miscellaneous paper scraps into an exhibit of modern art. If the internet looks this way, tis only because you, with your tunnel-vision hangover, look past the bookshelves from where you are sprawled on the floor.
Think about it. If you were to wander through a library, lovingly dragging your hands across the aging spines of the beautiful books all lined up neatly on their shelves, you are invited, nay entreated, to a wonderful serendipitous occasion. It is one of the great joys in life. I am a bit of a history buff, and many a fine hour has been spent ferociously devouring the contents of historical map books in the reference section.
But to lament in such situations that I could not find answers to my questions is silly. If I approached a librarian and said: "I just spent a fruitless two hours paging through the historical maps and I can't find a picture of Alexander the Great"... They might laugh. They would certainly introduce me to the wonders of the library catalogue.
Am I overstating my case? I think not. If you find delight in your serendipitous successes on the internet, I am very happy for you. If you think the internet is too disorganized for something better, then I fear you are deluded, for there is a great deal of organization and search techniques and tools that can clear away the mess.
It is not that I am keeping these elements of organization from you either. Most often, if you are a little familiar with the library, then you are already familiar with a great deal of organization, search technique and tools. Many of these you can apply now, after being shown just once.
But to truly banish serendipity, we must do more than change your habits. It is to impress you that doing research is a little more challenging than walking over to a library catalogue. For starters, we are dealing with a great deal more information. For seconds, the research shortcuts you are seeking are not coded into one search tool or another. It is instead the way we go about searching. Rather than approach a shelf and start browsing, we need to look again at the way we start our research.
The answer to this questions takes me a little more than the 3 hour seminar I teach on exceptional internet research, but the essence boils down to applying principals of library science, some insights from Sociology, and certain technical feats allowed by computer technology, to look for specific information.
Such an approach rests a world apart from lazily letting your fingers run along the spines of dusty books seeking that serendipitous occasion. Both are exquisitly rewarding.
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David Novak, founder of the Spire Project, delivers seminars on Exceptional Internet Research around the world. I hope to see you one day. SpireProject.com/seminar/ for details.