The Joy of Focussed-Random Browsing in the Library Stacks: recast and rediscovered in my Twitter feed

By Janet Rankin, Sr. Associate Director for Teaching Initiatives

For anyone who was involved in scholarly pursuits before the Internet became ubiquitous and before card catalogs became trendy for the storage of things having nothing to do with cards, browsing the library stacks for research-related journal articles and texts - was one of the most exciting, and yet simple practices many researchers engaged in.  

I called it "Focussed-Random Browsing", and, for those of you younger than 30, here's how it worked :

  1. Locate the call-number (the unique set of alpha-numerics associated with a particular book or journal in a library-system - using the card catalog (in the library),  
  2. go to the section of the library-stacks that housed the resource with that call number (and resources with related call numbers).
  3. Locate the resource.
  4. Here's where the fun began.  After scanning the original resource, I would sit down in the middle of that region in the stacks, and somewhat randomly, yet with a set of unarticulated filters, select and browse other books/journals in the general vicinity of the original citation.  There was always that anticipation that I would find a tangentially related, yet hugely relevant idea, or study, or even single value - that could a new prospective -or unlock the current mental log-jam.  It really was very thrilling…and a pretty great way to spend an afternoon…(ok i'm a nerd). I'm guessing that most readers over a certain age know what exactly what I'm talking about.

Once we started looking-up papers electronically and remotely we lost the opportunity for this directed serendipity…and, in my opinion we lost a little bit of joy. 

Fast-forward 30-ish years and consider Twitter. I have come to realize that I treat browsing my Twitter-feed like directed-random browsing in the library stacks.  I follow certain people and groups, and I scan my feed for posts from those Tweeters.  Usually, early in the morning - over my first cup of coffee, I "enter" my Twitter feed looking for things that are related to - but are neither explicitly, nor obviously connected to my current interests - in these early morning, coffee-fueled excursions, I virtually "sit down" in the Twitter stacks -  surrounded by a sequence of Twitterfied call numbers. I don't bother looking at say, posts from "All Songs Considered"  if i'm looking for info on technology in teaching, for example. But I might look at Wired, or the Huffington Post - Education, or even…things that would have a similar but not exactly the same "call number" as technology in teaching.  

For example, last summer - this tweet by the PBS NewsHour - caught my attention: Should educators kill the lecture format?.  It led me to this blog post from KQED: Mind/Shift - How we will learn: Anyone Still Listening? Educators Consider Killing the Lecture

One of the comments on this post referenced some work out of Stanford, published in the IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies: April-June 2013 (vol. 6 no. 2), pp. 117-129.  Preparing for Future Learning with a Tangible User Interface: The Case of Neuroscience

From the abstract: "An ecological evaluation of BrainExplorer revealed that:

  1. students who engaged in the open-ended exploration outperformed students who used traditional textbook materials and 
  2. correctly sequencing activities is fundamental for improving student performance. Participants who used the tabletop first and then studied a text significantly outperformed participants who read a text first and then used the tabletop."

In other words, the order of activities mattered!  These results gave me a new/different way to think about my work with faculty members here at MIT who may want to use blended learning and or flipped classroom strategies.  The article prompted me to think about how I might help faculty to consider, not only the activities that students might engage in their flipped classroom, but also the sequencing of those activities.  All from a early morning, random (or perhaps not so random) pass through my Twitter feed - starting with the PBS NewsHour.  

Browsing a Twitter feed may not be exactly the same as wondering the stacks, but it certainly fills some of the void left behind when the stacks essentially disappeared.  And in fields where things change very fast Twitter may be just the right media for at least some of our "directed random browsing" (and we get to bring along coffee!!).