Serendipitous Learning and the Physical Library

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Thoughts about serendipitous learning and the role of physical libraries.

Serendipitous learning
It is always a joy to see someone so engrossed in reading.

I cannot remember how many times a key piece of information for my assignments came from a book I picked up while searching for something else on the bookshelves. 

Shelf browsing does a lot for me. Walking from shelf to shelf, I can observe the development of a branch of knowledge. I note with interest how certain call numbers have a bigger collection or lack of it. I recognized some titles and laugh at others. I discover books on topics that I did not even know existed. I learned about diseases and the latest diet plans. How about places of interest? Cities I have never been or even heard of.

I am not alone in my experience. Many library users have stories of serendipitous learning to tell.

A famous example would be Marla Spivak.

In her TED talk about Why bees are Disappearing, she reveals that her interest/passion in bees started from a serendipitous encounter with a bee book she stumbled upon in the library.

Steven Bell (October 2014) said,

“The planet’s future isn’t always in the balance when collection collisions happen. More likely it’s just the birth of a lifelong reader or the launch of some new passion. These “good accidents” are too much a part of the quintes­sential library experience to allow them to fade away.”

I agree with Bell.

Nothing that happens in the library is ever earth-shattering. But they are sparks. A small spark can ignite a big fire. A small rolling ball can snowball into something really important.

Digital Search

I am not saying that serendipitous learning cannot take place online in the digital space. I am saying we need to try to keep one while doing the other.

For one, the current strength of digital resources is in Search. Google presents you with a search box. What does that box signify?

Does it not presuppose that you know what you are looking for? Does it not expect you to know what keywords to search for? What if I do not know how to describe what I want? What if it is called by another name that I am unaware of? What if I do not know what I need to know?

The physical book collection is concrete and in the material space. It aids wandering without any particular keywords in mind.

I can concentrate, ponder and meditate with a book in hand, but my mind starts to wander when I stare at a computer screen. The inevitable question pops into my mind, “what will I miss if I do not click on this hyperlink?”.

The general trend in resource development is towards digital libraries at the expense of the physical. In many libraries abroad, and even in Singapore, bookshelves are being relegated to the walls or under the staircases to make room for computers and furniture.

This is not a trend to be followed with relish as if we are joining the big leagues. Emphasis on collaborative learning spaces must be made but deliberate planning to integrate the physical collections should be attempted.

Bell, again, is the one who issues the challenge. It is up to librarians to be more creative in developing better ways for our users to encounter our print collections besides presenting them with rows and rows of bookshelves.

I hope we can cherish the physical books we have. When everyone else is hailing the digital, I hope we can guard the print.

Related Readings for Serendipitous Learning

Bell, S.J. (Oct 2014). Collections Are for Collisions. American Libraries. Retrieved from:

Gritton, J. (2007). Of serendipity, free association and aimless browsing: do they lead to serendipitous learning. Retrieved March, 20, 2012.

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