Serendipity

I just received a sample copy of Information Today (23:5, May 2006) in the mail, which included an article titled “Seek and Ye Shall Find” by Shirley Duglin Kennedy. (Subscriber-only link, but it’s available in InfoTrac and elsewhere.) She notes:

“Some people think I am a magician because, in 90 seconds, I can find what they could not find in hall a day. They think it’s because I’m a whiz with databases and search engines. But usually that’s not why I’m successful. I’m successful because I’ve spent so many years poking around the Internet, reveling in serendipitous finds.”

Well gosh, yes!

Serendipity got me through half of an (abortive) PhD program — whenever I looked up one book, I’d scan the shelves around it and almost always find related resources. I kept up the practice whenever I walked people to the stacks as a reference librarian in a public library. And I’ve always thought of print research as following a similar pattern to online research: One book or article will point to several more; look those up and they’ll spider out further; you’re done when your outbound links start to duplicate to the point where it’s unlikely you’ll find anything new on your topic. (Or never done, if you’re obsessive and in a PhD program! )

I think this is a point we’ve somewhat overlooked in the recent discussions about professionalism and keeping current. Because I read blogs and journals and web sites and tuck aside things for use in presentations or articles, I’m more likely to be able to find an answer later. Limiting your reading and participation to what strictly pertains to your current job limits your outlook and limits the foundation you will later need to build upon when your job inevitably changes.

One of the things that makes us professional is the underlying inquisitiveness that makes us go beyond, that makes us think about how things fit together and who else might benefit from or be working on a given topic, that makes us ponder what implications our serendipitous finds may have on our workplace or our profession — and makes us want to pass our thoughts on to others. Dorothea makes a good point when commenting on the last professionalism post, saying: “Isn’t that what deprofessionalization is, really? Turning a career into a job?”

Seeing librarianship as a career, not a job, means seeing this as a profession, not just a field in which we are employed. It means being willing to go beyond, to embrace serendipity, to participate, and to see ourselves as part of a larger whole.

3 Comments

  1. Harrlynn:

    rachel, i can feel my hairs starting to split. the semantic you’re describing is the same thing as what i would refer to as “doing my job.”

    a career is a job you want to have for a significant amount of time. for example, my brother is currently a career bartender because he’s been doing it for a while and has no alternative money-making plans at the moment. he gets paid to his job, and that means he’s a professional. any other wide-eyed thoughts are just bad cases of snobbery.

    and, by the way, i’m not buying ms kennedy’s quote either. she is a whiz. she should stop downplaying her ability to easily find information.

    what makes a good reference librarian is an excellent memory, and the ability to quickly access the correct language of an informational need. serendipiity is just what it is. luck. you can’t rely on luck to do your job properly. unless, of course, you’re a career gambler.

  2. Bob Watson:

    This is one of the “hidden” problems in librarianship: reference work depends upon wide knowledge (stuff in a person’s head) rather more than it does about knowing what a particular book/database purportedly contains.

    If you’ve got an inkling about what you’re looking for you’ve got many choices as to where to look. If you haven’t got a clue you’re pretty much relying on the hope that your clueless questions will lead to something useful … and you can only hope that the person you’re searching for is even more clueless!

  3. Heather:

    I couldn’t agree more – thanks for putting it so succinctly! Valuing serendipity and seeing connections should be coded in our job descriptions somehow.

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