Serendipitious Discovery

Early in my freshman year at Stanford I began working at the Library. In those days the great collection of books in the stacks wasn’t open to the students. At the circulation desk I would receive the student request card, try to recall from the book’s call number what level it was on, head into the stacks, down the stairs, through the long and dark aisles, until I came to the right shelf, run my hand along the spine of the books, glancing from time to time at the titles, wishing I could stop to read one or two, scanning the Dewey Decimal numbers, collect the book if it was there, head back down the aisle, up the stairs and pass the book on to the staff to be checked out after stealing a glance at its introductory pages.

That sounds pretty tedious, but it wasn’t. I liked wandering around the shelves, always intrigued by the books that were stored there, the new topics and areas of study that I didn’t know existed, stopping every now and then to grab a book to bring upstairs to read until I had to head down again to fetch one. Eventually I became eligible for one of study the tables located on each floor of the stacks. There I could keep my textbooks and other volumes that I had checked out from the library and do my class work in a setting that is about as favorable as they come.

I spent most of my days and many nights at that table in the stacks of the Library. It was utterly peaceful there, no one else was around and I could come and go as I pleased. Since I was in the throes of academic discovery, it was the best of all possible places.

Every once in a while, I’d take a little “study break” to wander up and down the aisles, checking the titles of the books that caught my eye. This kind of exploration will no longer be possible in the new bookless library. There will no discovery of that unknown book that you subsequently found indispensable. Thomas Benton has recently described the importance of such moments in the process of doing research.

I remember one time I was writing about Edgar Allan Poe and phrenology when I found a box of ephemera—not catalogued in any detail—that included a pamphlet for a book by an early psychologist who analyzed Poe on the basis of daguerreotypes of the poet. I quickly found the book in another area of the same library, and discovered a sequence of pages that purported to show that Poe was suffering from a disorder that affected only one hemisphere of his brain and that revealed itself in the asymmetry of his face…that accidental discovery—the centerpiece of a subsequent article—would never have been made but for the serendipity and convenience of the stacks.

How often I recall a similar experience in my own research. I would go in search of a particular bound volume of a journal. Accidentally I’d pick out the wrong one and beginning scanning the pages, only to discover another article, perhaps even more important than the one I was searching for and that, in turn, led me on a path of further inquiry that would never had occurred if I was searching for the article online. Who has not had the pleasure of discovering such an article by thumbing through the journals of their discipline?

To be sure searching online can be a rich source of information and unexpected sources do appear sometimes. But the search is a targeted one, a narrow one. You are looking for a particular document and you find it or something close. As a friend wrote to me in describing her own online experiences: “There is no room in that equation for the serendipitous discovery. When all goes well, you find what you are looking for. But sometimes what you need to find is what you are not looking for.”