The Lost Art of Browsing

Searching for information on the Internet has brought data to our fingertips, but it doesn’t always provide answers. It’s also made us a little lazy. Google searching means our inquisitiveness is filtered through an algorithm, designed to push answers at us whether that’s what we’re asking or not. Our lives are surrounded by forms of entertainment designed “For you,” yet curated content doesn’t satisfy our wanderlust either. Swiping or scanning through social media doesn’t replace the glory of a meandering conversation with a friend over lunch in the shade on a hot day. And nothing replaces the stacks.

A study cage, or carrel, is pictured in the Memorial Library north stacks on Dec. 28, 2021 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Photo by Bryce Richter / University of Wisconsin–Madison)

When I was a kid, my library protocol was a systematic wander. Sometimes I started with the As or with a recommended book, but sometimes I started in the middle just letting my eye roam over titles with intrigue, interesting fonts, and curious covers. My one rule was I liked to get ten books; my one irritation was that you had to write out slips in groups of three, which vexed me because there was one left over. (But I never picked out nine or twelve.) I was ever so happy when the slips went away.

When I was an undergraduate, I figured out a way to get special permission to go into the stacks at Berkeley’s Doe Library, one of the largest libraries in the world. Normally, only the graduate students had access. In their lone carrels, the exuded a haunted yearning that required quiet, desperate thinking, not to mix with the mass of noisy, playful undergraduate puppies bounding about in Moffitt Library. I would study up in the stacks, too, but I liked to pull random books of the shelves to “steal moments,” perusing books unrelated to what I had to study. (How do English majors avoid studying? they read something else…)

Consider this, then a love letter to pulling random books of the shelf, a paean to browsing, to wandering through places where information is stored and letting curiosity take over. For any kind of search, changing the paradigm can yield unexpected fruit.

The First Rule of Wandering is No Rules

We knew how to browse and wander as children. “What were you doing?” “Nothing.” A lot of times it really was nothing or nothing worth remembering, just letting the path take us and our mind flit about like clouds. I’m not a shopper–I’m a buyer–but I understand the instinct to roam out of one store after the other, fingering things, or poking into cubbyholes to see if there might be a bargain. Perhaps some of us are only fit to “shop” at libraries, where what you get is free, which is definitely a bargain.

But browsing when you research can follow a similar approach. All you need is a starting point, one topic, one book on your subject to start with. Find the book on the shelf, then start looking around in a widening circle. Don’t forget the top and bottom shelf; don’t be afraid to go up on tiptoe or bend down. Don’t be afraid of Miscellaneous. Above all, get right up to the source.

A search can be helpful to start the process. Computers are allowed to help. I’m not saying you have to start in the parking lot or in the Chinese language section. Pay attention to the subject category of what you’re searching for. It can be really interesting if you have a topic that intersects categories, so that you can broaden outward.

For example, if you’re researching the tax practices of Genghis Khan–and that’s my current topic and why are you not surprised–you get to look in the Asian history section and the accounting section. Here’s The Sex of a Hippopotamus: A Unique History of Taxes. Here’s a coffee table book with maps full of the Silk Road. The development of military technology, like the stirrup and the recursive bow. There are biographies, Heaven’s Favorite and Birth of an Empire. You’re crossing disciplines in the Dewey Decimal System; you’re flowing along through the Library of Congress catalog.

None of this happens if you just look up a book and order it.

Why Not Just Search?

But suppose you’re pressed for time? You don’t have time to get a stack pass or meander aimlessly. The problem is that searching for a single thing limits you; if that thing has exactly what you need, so be it. However, it might not be exactly what you need. The title sounded good, but as you flip through the pages, your answers aren’t there. (The Sex of a Hippopotamus turns out to be poorly organized, a random group of tax anecdotes rather than any kind of study of taxes throughout history. A book still to be written! maybe by kajmeister…) Plus, finding a single book with an answer may limit you from finding the book that also might tell you something you didn’t know you needed to know.

Moreover, searching for a single item, where you have a title is only one kind of search. We also search for answers to questions, and this is fraught with difficulty. The language algorithms are interpreting. If the question is simple (how many miles in a league?), you might get an answer in one go. But a question you think is simple can be misleading. Say you ask about traveling to Mars? Google it right now, and you’ll see a spread of answers, even if that YouTube video about searching shows you how algorithms will winnow down those matches to just a handful. It’s either nine months or a year or two. The astronauts in the capsule on the way to Mars might want it to be a little narrowed down.

If there are too many options, too many screens full of feedback, you will be tempted to narrow the question even further. Who wants to scroll through screen after screen?–this is where looking at a giant organized shelf of books seems much more efficient. But filters limit; filters can keep you from finding the nugget.

Curated Content Is Even Worse

Plenty of technology today says it’s For You, that it’s already done the searching for you, so you don’t have to. This is the problem with allowing technology filters. They really aren’t filtering for you at all. They are increasingly made up of advertisements disguised as content. My browser shoves articles at me every day; it’s difficult to turn off (Pocket in this case), and every time I figure out how to eliminate it, the browser will run an update once a month and put it back in.

What Firefox thinks I should read but can you even tell the ads from the content? Kajmeister screen snap.

Or think about your music systems, which are supposed to choose for you. When Pandora was originally created in 2000, it worked primarily only with algorithms. You gave it three songs or artists, and it gave you more of the same. It worked effectively, but Pandora couldn’t really make money that way, giving people exactly what they wanted (mostly for free).

Those days are mostly gone. I finally broke down–after two decades–and got an ad-free version of Pandora. However, instead of clicking past multiple ads, now I have to click past all the “curated content” which is nowhere near what I’m interested in listening to. Even though I have two dozen stations which I created (so they are curated correctly for me), I have to scroll past all these Exclusive and Highest Rankings and Music by Mood Just For Me. Actually, the Merengue category looks kind of interesting; Pandora does seem to know that I listen to Shakira a lot especially when I’m pulling weeds in the back yard. So some of it might be on point, but the vast majority is not.

My Pandora, Kajmeister screen shot.

Systems like these are designed for people with narrow, not broad tastes. When I started Pandora yesterday, it tried to offer me a station of all my “thumb’s up.” I have stations for Glenn Gould, Motown, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the music from “Dune,” Tallis Scholars, and Shakira. The thumb’s up from that station was almost random noise. That’s like picking the third book off the fourth shelf of every stack because once before, you chose the third book on the fourth shelf. Plus, having a list of ALL your favorites makes no sense, unless your favorites is from a single, genre-specific list.

Sadly, I noticed that the online libraries seem to be adopting this mode, too. They’re curating the content you see into groups. I don’t mind having to scroll past “Recommended Reads” or “Most Popular,” but just now, when I opened the county library app, I had to filter past books about Queen Elizabeth II, Feed Yourself, Listen to Some Love, Poems as Lovely as Trees, The Natural World, Gardening Secrets… just to get to the main screen. I don’t mind wandering if I get to choose, but someone has already limited what I wander through. I object to that.

Or, to put it another way, it’s not a taste test if you’re choosing between Coke and Pepsi.

It does take a little more time to search past the Coke and Pepsi to see if there’s another kind of drink. Or, to insist that, no, you don’t really want to learn anything about the Kardashians (including whether I spelled that correctly). To go into a physical place and look around, choosing your own path towards fascinating bits of knowledge.

You don’t even have to be looking for something in particular. In fact, it’s better if you’re not.

Library at Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by Kallmaker.

4 Replies to “The Lost Art of Browsing”

  1. My favorite line ever in one of your posts:

    “(How do English majors avoid studying? they read something else…)”

  2. I was *just* about to look up “the tax practices of Genghis Khan”!!! I do love how you write and the paths your brain goes down. Thanks!

  3. I think it was your brother who said the trend in knowledge curation shunts people into two groups: those who tend to go deep but not wide, and those who go wide but not deep. The algorithms don’t handle all the ways to gather knowledge in between those two extremes. He wasn’t talking about libraries, but knowledge bases.

    Which if you think about knowledge bases used for things like tech support, we all suffer from being offered a knowledge base to search that provides a wide array of general answers that don’t answer our query, but we can’t get to the person who knows all the way down to the code why our printer won’t talk to our WiFi on Tuesdays.

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