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.