Andrew Abbott on Creation and Discovery in Library Research

If there’s one key message in Andrew Abbott’s recent book Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials, it’s that library research is about creation, not discovery. As Abbott says, “skill in library research is knowing, when you have randomly found something, whether or not you ought to have wanted to look for it” (xii). This understanding of what should have been sought, he goes on to argue, is based in the researcher’s expert knowledge of the project as well as a combination of rigor and imagination.

In advancing this view, Abbott—who is a sociology professor at the University of Chicago—frames his perspective as being in contrast to librarians, who he criticizes throughout the book for embracing an overly linear and scientific view of research that prioritizes efficiency over creativity. Along these lines, he advises researchers never to use the web-scale discovery services that most libraries now feature on their homepages as a possible starting point for research. In Abbott’s estimation, attempts by librarians to use technology to enhance the findability and discoverability of library collections typically has the opposite effect because they overwhelm the user with information, include low-quality results, and, perhaps most damningly, relocate control from researchers to information designers. Instead, Abbott advocates for a multiphase, nonlinear research process built on the tasks of “design, bibliography, scanning and materials search, reading, maintaining files, analyzing retrieved material, and writing” (4).

I could provide a lengthy list of points that I disagree with Abbott about, but I’ll make just one criticism for now. This criticism is that Abbott’s guide to library research is so prescriptive in so many ways and so overwhelming in its imperatives that I doubt that many readers will have the time or patience to embrace its daunting rigors. For this reason, I think that the book functions less as a practical guide to library research and more as a traditionalist’s polemic about what research should be and how the library should function to support that activity. From this perspective, the book is an engaging and sometimes insightful read that I think most librarians will enjoy (even as they shake their heads at some of the judgments and directives that Abbott hands down).

For readers of this blog, it is likely Abbott’s discussion of browsing that will be of most interest. In my opinion, Abbott’s definition of browsing is ingenious. He describes browsing as “the productive confrontation between an ordered, informed mind and a differently ordered set of materials” (27). This gap between how the researcher’s mind is organized and how the browsed materials are organized provides the crucial cognitive space where creativity and insight occurs. For this reason, Abbott repeatedly emphasizes the value of introducing random elements into research. Further, he praises serendipity as “the one constant factor in research” (104) and as “a (or the) central constituent of the process through which your project gets focused and completed” (119).

While I admire Abbott’s definition of browsing and agree that random elements can be of significant value in the research process, I’m skeptical of the ways that he tries to build randomness into the research process. Indeed, can serendipity truly be serendipitous (i.e., a happy accident, an unplanned outcome) if researchers intentionally design their processes in such a way that serendipity becomes its “central constituent”?

I’m equally skeptical of Abbott’s repeated claims that a successful researcher is not an efficient one. As a proponent of S. R. Ranganathan’s five laws, I see efficiency—exemplified in in the fourth law, save the reader’s time—as a core value of librarianship. While Abbott characterizes efficient research as research than prevent researchers from experiencing the random and nonlinear elements that lead to valuable insights, I would suggest that he is in fact espousing an efficient research process (at least to the extent that his book’s claims about research are valid). Indeed, if efficiency is defined as the timely and ordered completion of a successful research project and if he is advocating for his recommended process as the best way to achieve that outcome, then perhaps despite his best intentions, Abbott is an advocate for efficiency in library research.

 Ultimately, I think that my preceding comments about serendipity and efficiency suggest another point, which is that taking advantage of the insights laden in the random elements that can emerge in browsing requires that researchers adopt a kind of scholarly doublethink. While on the one hand they must stay open and spontaneous in their research processes, they must also work with the deeper realization that, by embracing openness and spontaneity, they are also being quite methodical.  

Patrick L. Carr is Assistant Director for Acquisitions and Collection Management at East Carolina University’s Joyner Library. His research interests include evolving models for the acquisition and management of library collections and the evolving functions that these collections perform for their user communities.

Performing Discovery

A few months ago, one of my saved searches brought back a story about a so-called digital library in a subway station in Bucharest. It turned out the library was actually a large-scale advertisement for a mobile phone company and a publisher. The walls of a subway concourse were covered floor to ceiling, in trompe l'oeil style, with printed posters of books on shelves. It was called a "digital library" because some of the books had QR codes added to their spines; smartphone users could scan the codes and be linked to previews of the books.

After reading these details, I reflexively dismissed the whole thing as insufferably corny. The QR codes, books as decoration, the play for attention-grabbing dissonance... What's this? Shelves of books? In a metro station!?! It sounded like something we'd have snickered over in a college cultural studies course: books and libraries as simulacra for urban commuters.

At the same time, I couldn't shake the thought that if I were there in person I would enjoy the experience of standing before the fake shelves, looking at the spines of the fake books, and exploring the collection, such that it is. After all, there are actual books represented in this library; it's not purely decorative wallpaper styled as shelves of indeterminately "old" volumes (which, it turns out, is very much a thing). And, as fake libraries go, it's pretty big: you'd have to move your feet, wander around, and probably crane your neck in order to take it all in. As much as the premise made me cringe, I started to wonder if this might actually be a pleasant way to casually discover an ebook -- more pleasant than browsing the web site of an online bookseller or a library catalog.

Part of what is at work here, of course, is the comfort of the familiar. Bookshelves, printed covers, and labeled spines are themselves technologies that have won out, over time, as a means of balancing the form of certain media (books), physical space, and human scale. They are part of our cultural vernacular; we understand the way they work and know how to navigate them with an ease that makes the technology of it all seem invisible.

But there's something else happening, something other than the (fake) books and shelves. There is something about informationally-dense spaces, spaces of a certain scale, spaces you have to move your body through to discover, spaces where we can physically model and then perform the act of discovery. Even when the objects to be discovered have been flattened into wallpaper, these spaces engender ways of browsing that personal-scale electronic devices do not.

Consider the scale and metaphors of our most common ebrowsing devices: the personal computer (a single desktop); the tablet (a single book); smartphone (which, best I can tell, is the scale of a candy bar). Then consider the relative amount of content that we can view through these small screens. The effect is like wandering the stacks of your local research library while looking through a director's viewfinder.

There is a lot of work being done to create a new vernacular for browsing digitally, but we should remember -- with concern -- that so much of this work is bound inside of personal screens. These screens are spaces, certainly, but they are smaller than us. They are fixed frames; we move and manipulate an impossibly large amount of information inside of them. Even when this work is moved to larger touch screens, users most often stand before a scaled-up version of some personal screen metaphor instead of performing discovery in spaces to be moved through.

We're nowhere near achieving the balance that our older information technologies worked out to address browsing. Open library stacks remain an amazing discovery tool for the things we can place on them. But replicating bookshelves virtually is not the solution for ebrowsing. It doesn't account for the fascinating ways that digital objects can be ordered, re-ordered, mapped, networked, scaled, layered, annotated, and otherwise visualized. In library buildings we construct quiet study spaces, coffee shops, group meeting rooms, media labs, maker spaces -- why not dedicated, purpose-built electronic browsing spaces where you can discover resources in ways that would be impossible on the screen of your laptop, tablet, or phone?

Where can we look for pointers? Artists have been working on immersive, interactive, digitally-based spaces for a long time. Childrens museums, science museums, and theme parks are especially good at creating exploratory, playful spaces for discovery. Cultural heritage museums are working on tools so that interactive discovery might include taking what you find away with you.

We've been quick to be convinced that new media are immaterial (though this has been convincingly repudiated); in doing so we've also been far too quick to toss out physical space as a means to discover them. Libraries and archives should be doing more important work to make ebrowsing a place.


This article from Slate has popped up in my Facebook feed repeatedly, and I wonder what you all think? "Inside the Box: People Don't Actually Like Creativity" Author Jessica Ollen writes,"Even people who say they are looking for creativity react negatively to creative ideas."  She describes tech start-ups and educators, among others, who fail to recognize creative ideas.  In the LIS field, we see a similar problem. This is evident in the numerous research databases that simply mimic one another. These tools are primarily search-based, providing long lists of articles.

I'd like to imagine an electronic browsing experience for someone reading this Slate article, prompting you to read and consider several things in parallel, at various depths, allowing you to explore and reflect on your path:




Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.

Thoughts on the new JSTOR project, Understanding Shakespeare

Take a look at this new tool that JSTOR and the Folger Shakespeare Library just released: Understanding Shakespeare. You can discover, for example, that 8 articles have cited the first line of Macbeth, then click into each one of them. What do you think? Does this provide an electronic browsing experience?

My thoughts: I very much appreciate this project and I think it helps us to visualize the possibilities of electronic browsing, as do many digital humanities projects.

Access to meandering citation trails is valuable to visualizing the landscape of scholarship. I'm trying to learn more about open linked data, as it seems to have the potential to build a more challenging context for a work such as Macbeth, going beyond citation trails and providing access to (and even prompts to explore) underlying patterns of use, subject matter, etc. 

Let's view this image alongside our discussion of Shakespeare and ebrowsing. This is 'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644) This was a widely accepted model of the universe in the 17th Century.

Let's view this image alongside our discussion of Shakespeare and ebrowsing. This is 'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644) This was a widely accepted model of the universe in the 17th Century.


Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.

Reading questions: what is browsing?

This post is part of a series of responses to various articles, books, and other materials. Our goal is to ask questions and spark conversation among ourselves and our readers.

Marcia Bates's article, "What is browsing-really? A model drawing from behavioural science research" is problematic in various ways, but it does one thing well: it summarizes the literature on browsing in the LIS field. Bates reflects on definitions of browsing and presents her own: "Browsing is the activity of engaging in a series of glimpses, each of which may or may not lead to closer examination of a (physical or represented) object, which examination may or may not lead to (physical and/or conceptual) acquisition of the object." Glimpsing suggests that the act of browsing is visual, which it undeniably is, but what role do other senses play, especially touch? She does discuss this later in the article, but far away from the definitions that she herself puts forward. The organization of this article has something in common with many of the interfaces we rant about here at ebrowsing: it is somewhat arbitrary and occasionally incomprehensible. 

But to return to Bates's content: there are so many definitions--glimpsing, looking, scanning--what does it all mean? I suppose these definitions fit into some of the (linear-seeming) steps in the browsing process as she envisions them, such as "examining the object" and "physically or conceptually acquiring the examined object."

Bates also spends a lot of time differentiating between browsing and scanning, which she describes as a smooth, uninterrupted process.Browsing, in contrast, is complex and iterative, and therefore not smooth. Scanning involves method, but "browsing is more open to surprise." These distinctions seem too small to be meaningful. I often think of browsing through search results, though Bates would call that process scanning. For her, browsing is very distinct from search or structure, but isn't the scanning of search results a kind of guided browsing? I'd argue that it's possible to be open to surprise and discovery when scanning (or browsing?) search results.

I'm also really curious about the difference between browsing and "berrypicking," which she likens to searching for berries in the forest--you get a few here; you get a few there. Berrypicking, as she defines it, describes an entire search episode. When engaging in this kind of search, she describes the searcher as having no expectation that one search or result set will be complete. But how many student searchers actually have this expectation? Perhaps this has changed since 2007, when she wrote the article. Browsing, as she defines it, is one aspect of a "berrypicking search."

But isn't searching for berries in the forest a kind of browsing? What would Aldo Leopold say? While I wonder about the effectiveness and value of resituating definitions of browsing and searching over and over again, Bates does acknowledge a truth: our current interfaces are not equipped to facilitate browsing with ease.


Call for Proposals

We are seeking scholars and specialists inside and outside the traditional boundaries of library scholarship to join our proposed panel discussion on the challenges and failures of browsing in today's electronic environment at The Association of College & Research Libraries Conference is in Portland, OR, March 25-28, 2015

Procedure -  Please email Kate Joranson,, briefly describing your interest in the topic as well as your professional background. Upon acceptance, we will work with you to develop questions to shape the panel's discussion.

Deadline - Monday May 5

Summary of Proposed Panel

Over the past two decades, the terms “discovery” and “search” have become conflated both in our collective lexicon and in the functionality of our discovery systems. An effect of this is that the other major component of discovery, browse, has been cast aside as outdated and irrelevant. We know, however, that browsing is a valued component of discovery for scholars and students in our libraries, and that these users express, explicitly and implicitly, a sense of loss in the face of search-focused discovery systems.

The momentum generated by the Semantic Web movement and the Library Linked Data movement suggest a great deal of potential for improved browse capability in discovery systems, yet browsing has been largely ignored by the creators of discovery tools. Innovations in discovery and access to information outside libraries (e.g. e-commerce) have far surpassed innovation for library discovery tools. Incorporating such technologies and concepts as linked data, user-focused design, and lessons learned from e-commerce can help us realize the potential of electronic browsing as a function of discovery. We must learn from the successes of information systems outside of libraries but not fall for the trap of parodying these technologies. Rather, we need to ask more of these technologies, shaping them to embody our values and the values of our patrons, such as historic reach, cultural significance, and intellectual integrity.

This panel will bring together practitioners, designers, and administrators of library information systems to discuss why electronic browsing is broken and how, or if, it can be fixed. The panelists will briefly present their perspective on the problems of electronic browsing and then will participate in a conversation facilitated by the moderators. Questions to be addressed by all panelists include:


  •  Why and how are our discovery systems (databases, discovery layers) failing our users?
  • On whom do we place the burden for facilitating discovery and who else might share that burden?
  • How can libraries incentivize creativity and risk in the development of discovery tools?
  • What do you wish were possible in an electronic browsing and discovery environment? Why is this not currently possible?

Through these questions and discussions we hope to drive at the heart of the problems of electronic browsing in our current digital library environment, how we might reset the balance between search and browse in the discovery experience, and what lessons we might learn from those outside of libraries.


Nina Clements, Steve VanTuyl, and Kate Joranson are project collaborators at


Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.

Browsing for Serendipity, Creativity, & Boundary-Crossing

What's the interplay between serendipity and creativity? What can artists and various stripes of creative professionals teach us about encouraging serendipitous discoveries? Based upon interviews with creative professionals, a recent study (Makri et al., 2014) describes some of the strategies these artists use to habitually invite serendipitous events into their creative work. Two of these strategies in particular offer up insights for ebrowsing environment design that speak to my own experiences as a former student and newly minted librarian: varying routines and relaxing boundaries.

"Girls. Your job is to meet three new people tonight— have a real conversation with them— and report back." This was my grandfather's inevitable charge to my sisters and me on the eve of any large-scale event (reunions, anniversary parties, community fundraisers, and the like). As unflagging and irritating as this behavior was, that persistent curiosity as a way of being in the world and in relation to the world has stuck with me. I'm still no social butterfly by any stretch of the imagination, but why not get around, so to speak? I've had some of my most formative moments intellectually, politically, and spiritually as a result of finding myself where I don't "belong"— by overhearing conversations, wondering down the wrong aisle or street, reading over friends’ shoulders, and by haphazardly veering into new fields of study— in other words, by varying routines (i.e. frequently getting lost) and relaxing boundaries (i.e. antagonizing every advisor or mentor I've had).
I have the erratic path of studies to prove it. My undergraduate studies in classics taught me on the one hand to be cultural critical, sensitive to and less inclined to take for granted the conventional wisdom of this or any historical moment, and on the other hand to entertain connections between disparate times, circumstances, and things. As a graduate student, before I found my way to librarianship, I focused on biblical studies in an intellectual tradition that incorporates literary criticism, history, cultural criticism, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, theology, and other disciplines in pursuit of deeper and ever more multifaceted acquaintanceship with the texts. This study stretched me to develop a keen awareness of both minutiae (think debates over a single letter in an ancient manuscript) and the larger theoretical and institutional frameworks in play. I've struggled to communicate these lessons to the undergraduates I work with as I've transitioned into academic business librarianship: the fruits of critical thinking, of healthy disciplinary cross-pollination, of being where you don't "belong," of wondering, and of serendipitous discoveries.
So many of my own discoveries have been in analog— thumbing through encyclopedias or browsing nearby shelves; I'm not so young and complacent as to be unconcerned about my various digital filter bubbles. My Netflix account has started to worry me. After my younger sister got her own taste profile, my recommendations have become markedly more uniform, and I've actually started to miss the chaotic element— that stream of B horror films and Will Farrell comedies— that diversified my browsing experience. Netflix's implementation of a stream of random picks is a nice gesture, but it doesn't satisfy me. After hearing a story on NPR about the 1,000s of subgenres the company uses, like action films starring Bruce Willis or coming-of-age road trip stories, I tried using the consecutively numbered URLs to browse some of those subcategories. But that's unwieldy. And a bit nerdy.
Although further customization is undoubtedly one way to build a better ebrowsing environment for libraries, I don't think it's a sufficient solution in and of itself. As a user, I still want the option (not the constraint) to "get lost" in some new territory, and I want the business students I work with to have that option at their disposal as well. I want to remind them to stay accountable to the wider world, to challenge and be challenged by other circles of thinkers and doers.

I think the most popular ebooks or most cited articles lists that I've seen on public library and journal publisher sites speak in part to the need for some awareness beyond our own algorithmically and self-imposed filter bubbles, but I also think we can do better. Makri et al. put forth several suggestions for ebrowsing design that I'd love to see implemented more widely:

  • Suggesting new resources that are related to the user's interests but that s/he has not previously accessed.
  • Suggesting similar but importantly distinct resources when a user frequently accesses the same resource.
  • Presenting related documents or websites alongside search results (integrating search and browse functions more closely).
  • Reminding users of previously accessed resources that relate to what is currently being viewed.

True— I don't want to be forced to wade through a slew of tangentially related articles every time I access a particular database, but for those moments when my mind needs to wonder where it doesn't "belong," I'd like that option and the interface to match.


Makri, S. et al. (2014). 'Making my own luck:' Serendipity strategies and how to support them in digital information environments [pre-print]. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. doi: 10.1002/asi.23200



Desirae Sweet

Business Librarian, James Madison University After studying religion and classics at Oberlin College and biblical studies at Yale Divinity School, Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet earned her MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. Now, she spends her days applying her hermeneutic of suspicion to business information and hopes her undergraduates will, too. She also loves baking challah and taking long walks with her wife and their elderly cockapoo.

Is Browsing Too Slow for Today's Users?

Last week, I had the nerve-wracking pleasure and privilege of presenting some of our imaginings on ebrowsing at the Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) conference in Austin, Texas. I was so impressed with the variety of presentations, and I was glad that our talk was featured as part of UX Day, a conference within a conference all devoted to user experience.

I learned a tremendous amount about open access and especially enjoyed a session from the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN). I had no idea, and perhaps I should have, that open access publishers and indexers are so interested in discoverability and, what’s more, the relationship between certain sources and ideas.  

I also really enjoyed Barbara Fister’s opening keynote, which took a “critical look at the cultural and social forces shaping our work.” She reminded us that when we serve students, we serve every aspect of them. Students are more than library users--they’re critical thinkers in the making. She raised several interesting questions, such as why we spend so much time teaching students information literacy skills, which often point to library databases and peer-reviewed articles, only to cut them off the day we graduate. Basically, we’re telling students that it’s important to evaluate information according to our (academic) criteria, but then they can’t have that kind of information once they graduate. She urged us, as librarians, to be activists and to challenge the consumer model that plagues our culture.

But in addition to the content that people presented, I had some great opportunities to think about the style with which they delivered it. Some of the presenters I saw, especially the leaders of the UX for Good workshop, spoke in quick rapid fire and didn’t give workshop participants a lot of context or direction, though the full story of that workshop is probably an entirely different blog post for another time. Sarah Durrant, who gave the second plenary session on the importance of resilience in libraries, spoke slowly and gently, encouraging reflection. Did a talk about resilience require this kind of reflection? Not necessarily, though it certainly impacted how I received it. Perhaps there’s something to that Marshall McLuhan cliche after all.

So, what does this have to do with browsing? In the informal conversations that I had with people at the conference, some were interested in browsing as a concept but not necessarily convinced that it was possible in today’s hussle-and-bustle insta-world. One of the ideas that I raised in my talk, for instance, was that physical browsing takes time and works best when students are open to new ideas and possibilities, when they are engaged in some way or other with a problem. But do people have time and leisure for this kind of openness and engagement?

Judging by the  variety of voices and presentation styles, I believe they are. Some of us are still open to reflection, still able to speak slowly. And some of our students are, too. Several of the students I helped this week still crave a tactile approach. Even though there aren’t enough books to browse, several of them still print out their articles in order to flip the pages and take notes on the article itself. Some of them prefer writing rather than typing; sometimes I do, too.

What we’re seeking is a rich, ebrowsing environment that will allow us both speed and stillness, both quick responses and the ability to take our time as we wander.


Kate Spade is Better at Discovery than ProQuest

One key difficulty of online discovery environments is the assumption that the user needs to see all of the information the system has to present - that there might be something in the entire haystack, the entire universe of information we are providing access to, that the user wants. A simple search, or even a complex one, will return tens if not hundreds of thousands of results in most discovery systems, be it a database or a “discovery layer.” While these results are rankable, facetable, and “browseable” we are intimately familiar with concerns that anything on the second page of results or even below-the-fold are essentially invisible to users. We see this approach everywhere, not just in libraries - searches returning results from all categories of things, resulting in a low precision result set due, at least in part, to the sheer enormity of the catalog being queried. Think searching for products at Amazon, or Target, or Home Depot, or Google Shopping.

One alternative to this approach is something we’re seeing in some innovative commercial browsing environments - don’t give the user everything, just give them what you think they might want. While this approach may seem counter-intuitive or counterproductive (wouldn’t this restrict the discovery potential?) I think this is a direction worth considering. Can we provide discovery systems/tools that engage the researcher from the outset on topics and items we know they are interested in? Rather than starting the discovery process with a search bar and nothing else (a la Google), we can present both a search option and a browse option directed at the researcher’s interests.

Browse for what you want, but only the stuff they show you! Kate Spade Saturday storefront. The partially obscured (sorry!) touchscreen is to the right, just behind the parking kiosk.

Browse for what you want, but only the stuff they show you! Kate Spade Saturday storefront. The partially obscured (sorry!) touchscreen is to the right, just behind the parking kiosk.

Last summer I was wandering around in New York and came across a curious sight. Kate Spade had put up a virtual storefront for their Saturday line. In the storefront - a smattering of actual things you could buy and a touchscreen catalog that allowed you to buy that stuff. But only the stuff in the window. This wasn’t everything offered by Kate Spade’s Saturday line, but the display wasn’t meant to show everything. It was meant to draw the user into the catalog and to engage with the content. Sometimes engagement is worth more than exposure.

So what could this actually look like in libraries? There are certainly many options for personalizing search results and experiences based on previous searches, information from the current search session, or profiles built by the users themselves. As a researcher in the ecological sciences, maybe I don’t want to see all of the databases my library has to offer related to the dramatic arts. If I’m almost always looking for conference proceedings, why must I sift through newspaper articles and trade publications in my result sets?

Maybe it is time to consider providing users with less stuff to look at. Rather than giving our users tools to dig through an enormous pile of information, maybe we should give them a smaller pile.

ebrowsing with naturalists

In thinking about how people move through a process of discovery, we turn to naturalists, as they offer an awareness of how their attention is directed by their environment. Early 20th century scientist and naturalist Aldo Leopold reflects on his approach to hunting partridge.

“One way to hunt partridge is to make a plan, based on logic and probabilities, of the terrain to be hunted. This will take you over the ground where the birds ought to be.  Another way is to wander, quite aimlessly, from one red lantern to another. This will take you to where the birds actually are. The lanterns are blackberry leaves, red in October sun.”
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Leopold uses the phrase “wander aimlessly” though he’s clearly moving deliberately from one blackberry bush to another. Let’s imagine a tool that would allow, or even encourage you to move among nodes that might only be visible to you, making use of your own highly cultivated lens.

As Leopold made his way through the brush, "red lanterns” catching his eye form time to time, he may have felt a bit aimless, as we all do when we are first noticing a pattern or relationship among seemingly unrelated things. Once we pause and reflect on our path, we are better able to articulate the relationships we see. While the word “wander” doesn’t seem quite right in retrospect, it does describe the initial impulse. It’s that initial impulse that we want to cultivate in the electronic environment.


Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.