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.