The Joy of Serendipity

So we've talked about library as social setting and findability. Let's talk now about something a little more slippery: the concept of serendipity in discovering information.

Silly Putty was created while trying to find a substitute for rubber. The idea for the microwave oven was born when a scientist noticed that the candy bar in his pocket melted when exposed to radar waves. Serendipity happens all the time in chemistry, physics, pharmacology and medicine.

I think the definition that someone put into Wikipedia is quite good: "Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely." In fact, the Wikipedia article goes on to talk initially about the role of serendipity in science and technology, and provides several examples - a couple of which are above.

Now, when I need a specific data point - if I really just need to know, for example, how many broadband subscribers there were in the US in 2006 - I only need to find that information. I don't need to know that US broadband penetration was 72% - at least not for my purposes at this moment. I know exactly what data I need, and I need to find that exact data. That's the goal of findability.

But serendipity is different - it's about finding what you don't even know exists. It's about discovery, but it's about not knowing what you might discover. It's about the unplanned. So how do you plan for that?

To a large extent, by definition, you don't. You simply can't.

But to build upon the idea that "chance favors the prepared mind", you can create an environment for it to happen more readily - you can increase the chances that it can happen.

This is where collections of knowledge come into play, and where serendipity applies to libraries and other information collections. If you put a lot of information together, so that you can browse and wander through it, either physically or virtually, won't the chances increase that you'll find something extraordinary, something extraordinarily useful?

The answer is yes - and I state this through my own recurring experiences as a librarian and researcher. I know you've had these experiences, too. Often, I will have just finished working on a research request and, while working on a completely different request, I will run across a report or article that is unquestionably related to the previous request - but not in the way that I, or my requester, was thinking about it. It seems to come out of the blue, but is extremely relevant.

Could I have searched for it and found it? NO - because I didn't know I was looking for it.

Sometimes it's more ordinary - I'm going through a familiar resource, but something new has been added. For example, I was recently looking for information on the IT market and going through IDC.com. Suddenly, I ran across a press release for market sizing for the IT leasing market - exactly the thing that I was addressing with the previous requester.

Now, this isn't earthshaking serendipity - this kind of "ordinary" serendipity isn't world-changing. This level of serendipity is more along the lines of Lawrence Block's quote: "Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for."

But what happens when you have a collection of millions of documents or pieces of information - like Google, like IEEE Electronic Library, like the British Library - and you can browse through them, virtually or physically, just to see what you can find? To see where you might find connections or patterns where there weren't connections before?

While physical libraries provide certain kinds of opportunities for serendipity, tools like Grokker (we have an exterprise version at Sun called Sun Grokker) provide the virtual experience of serendipity. Grokker and the variety of mashups coming out these days are starting to break open the physical constraints and allow information to interact in new ways. And this enhances serendipity.

There is no question, at least in my mind, that information in isolated collections can be useful. Discrete collections can provide focus, a concentration of information, which is particularly useful for specialized audiences.

But when you start to bring a lot of disparate information together, surprising and world-changing things can happen. Suddenly you get to experience what Sir Isaac Newton might have felt like, getting hit on the head by the apple. New ideas are born. Innovative products are produced. New lands are discovered. The game changes.

And that's just another reason why I love what I do. That's part of the reason why I truly have the best job at Sun. What we do helps the folks at Sun have those serendipitous moments, the "AHA!" moments that make Sun the unique company and workplace that it is.

That, and I get to work with some of the most amazing and fun people in the company :)

Scott Brown
Digital Libraries & Research
Sun Learning Services

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