Collections, Discovery, Serendipity

When I visit someone’s home for the first time I’m hyper aware of their stuff.  Not all of their possessions, in fact it’s only really three things that my eyes gravitate towards: 1) Photos – real ones.  Printed, not digital.  Framed or in albums, I love them all. 2) Books – What are you currently reading?  What have you read?  What’s waiting to be read? 3) Music – Ideally records.  They’re big and beautiful and fun to flip through.

While I’m looking through collections, I’m wondering a couple of things:

What do we have in common?

What surprises are hidden in their sanctuaries?

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On Saturday, Teddy Wayne wrote a pretty great article in The New York Times, titled “Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves”.  The article talks about having physical reading material (not digital) in the home.  How does it affect us to digitize our collections?

I’m not sure I agree with everything that Wayne says; however, I really do like his take on happy accidents that are more likely to happen when reading printed materials.  His thoughts on searching using digital means really made me scratch my head: “Scrolling through file names on a device, on the other hand, is what we do all day long, often mindlessly, in our quest to find whatever it is we’re already looking for as rapidly as possible.”

“Searching for what we’re already looking for”… very useful, but does it allow for divergent thinking?  Will we find a different perspective along the way?  Will we be open to THAT voice in addition to the one we’re looking for?

As I read (and reread) the article today, my mind zoomed back to something I had read a few months ago in Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind:

"Gleick, in his thorough history The Information, observes, ‘there is a whiff of nostalgia in this sort of warning,  along with an undeniable truth: that in the pursuit of knowledge, slower can be better. Exploring the crowded stacks of musty libraries has its own rewards.  Reading –  even browsing –  an old book can yield sustenance denied by a database search.’  It is perhaps fitting that I stumbled upon this paragraph by accident in the library at Auburn College,  where I was looking for something else entirely, and the spine of Gleick’s  book caught my eye.  Many scientific careers were fuelled by ideas that came to researchers by stumbling upon articles that captured their attention while searching for something else that turned out to be far more boring and the less useful. Many students today do not know the pleasure of serendipity that comes from browsing through stacks of old academic journals,  turning past “irrelevant” articles on the way to the one they’re looking for,  finding their brain attracted to a particularly interesting graph or title. Instead, they insert the name of the journal article they want and the computer delivers it to them with surgical precision,  effortlessly. Efficient, yes. Inspiring, and capable of unlocking creative potential, not so much.”

I wonder if that’s exactly what I’m doing when I look at people’s collections of photos, books and music.  Am I actually looking to unlock something new in our relationship?  Maybe that’s one of the reasons to surround kids with a variety of physical media in our classrooms and schools… to allow for serendipitous moments that spark discovery.  Moments that let them grow and become connected to new ideas, perspectives and people… happy accidents that aren’t so searchable.

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