Creating serendipity in the digital world

We’ve all enjoyed browsing the web or the shelves of a library, and stumbling upon an unexpected writer or subject. This type of serendipity is a happy accident, as are many of life’s most memorable experiences. How does serendipity play out as libraries move into the digital landscape, and are we losing serendipity on the web?

A recent article explores whether personalisation of the web will ultimately destroy discovery. As the content we see is personalised through the use of cookies and algorithms we begin to lose the opportunity to discover interesting but unrelated content. I balk at the idea of the web being tamed and already feel sentimental for the days of the wild digital frontier. On the flipside, I’m as time poor as the next person, and can see the benefits of being directed towards content similar to that which I’ve explored and enjoyed before. I’d much rather be directed to this content through content curation than computed algorithms.

And what of digital library collections? Can you arrange a digital library to replicate the experience of browsing the shelves? Another recent article looks at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco where the physical collection is arranged on geographic principles to simulate the experience of the library ‘as a map’. The library’s founders discuss the complementary nature of analog and digital library collections. They explain how the two formats can dovetail together to enhance the browsing and discovery experience.

These two articles raise interesting ideas about serendipity in the digital world from quite different perspectives. Let’s hope we never lose the chance to have happy accidents.

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