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.