The Art of Browsing

Field at sunset

In this photo, attention fluxes between the foreground and background. Browsing involves the same kind of attention flexing between general and specific.

By: Pam Kessinger, PCC Faculty Librarian

November 1, 2010

“No thanks, I’m just browsing” is the phrase I love to imagine hearing library users say, as if they were perusing the books like they would the newest fashions, for their cachet and allure of uniqueness. Just looking, the implication would be, idly picking up visual cues and letting their minds wander, taking in ideas and forming juxtapositions.

Portland Community College librarians teach students to “browse the stacks” that is, to take a classification number and look across a row of books or DVDs to find items on similar topics. We teach students that specific topics are encompassed by larger ones. We suggest that they “explore” a topic before becoming too fixed on a narrowly defined one that will be difficult to find enough sources for. But they resist. Disappointment clouds their faces as they begin to suspect that we either do not know how to find what they want or we want to make them work harder in their searching.

Where is the disconnect then? Besides not understanding why reading can help build their store of knowledge about a topic area—filling in gaps in their knowledge base, finding ideas to be curious about—students often do not have awareness of the “underlying patterns” needed for quick decision making. As Gladwell notes, “If you are given too many choices, if you are forced to consider much more than your unconscious is comfortable with, you get paralyzed” (142, 143).

Consider from a student’s perspective how intimidating it must be to look at a set of shelves six feet high, filled with books top to bottom that all look much the same. You may not realize that a classification scheme (like Dewey Decimal) means organizing the books into groups and subgroups. Or, that while the titles may sometimes be misleading,1 an index at the end of a book will guide you unambiguously. As surely as the table of contents, and preface, are there to reveal the purpose of the book.

How much harder it is then, to convince them that by scanning the contents of books they will understand not only context and ideological frames, but also specific aspects important to understanding their topics much better.

Librarians teach students that much of this material will never make it to the web; that even with the digitization projects between Google and several universities, few of these books will ever qualify for automated full-text browsing.

It could be, I suppose, considered a major disadvantage by some inexperienced searchers when all this text is left unvetted by the blogosphere. William Stafford warns us against dusty old printed information in his poem “The Book About You”:2

“The book that tells about you slumps in the library somewhere in the medical section. . .By the end of the book, you are dead one-third of the time but live a useful life occasionally if caught early….Softly you close the book and push back. You walk past the travel section and the mysteries and romances….The librarian is watching you. You spread your hands, go out the quiet door, and stand there enjoying the sun. There are days like this for everyone. Somebody else will put the book back. Strangely—one of the symptoms?—you feel like singing (28).

Library users new to the search process assume that assertions gain the gravitas of accuracy through the weight of repetition, or the kudos of popularity. Whatever someone posits, or prepares for consumption, rises to the top of web search results if it is linked to frequently enough. Inexperienced searchers assume the first results are best. They conflate repetition with validity: if what is in a printed book in not readily accessible on the web, it would be suspect at best to them.

But browsing is not the same as web surfing, with its attendant random link clicking and losing track of how you got to where you are, or the undervaluing of connections between sources. Browsing involves consistently active thinking, both in a conscious meta-cognition of your chosen search strategies and in an unconscious, creative openness to perceiving connections and contrasts between ideas. Like the original definition of the term—closer to grazing, to feed upon, nibbling—browsing is a focused activity (cf. Gordon).

A recent letter to the editor of American Libraries illustrates this point well. The author noted, “Serendipity is not about discovering the most popular books. On the contrary, it is about finding the unpopular books that would have otherwise gone unnoticed….Browsing isn’t about finding specific book though. It’s about finding ideas” (Vaver, 6). This letter was in response to Donald A. Barclay’s assertion that online search tools would suffice when library collections were moved off site (54).

Another American Libraries letter writer notes, “For many topics, it is exceedingly difficult to hit on the exact keyword or subject search combinations to identify every conceivable item that may be pertinent to one’s research….[While] browsing titles in proximity…[it is] not uncommon…to yield relevant titles that electronic searching alone misses” (Mott, 6).

“Control-F” as a way to quickly seek a word or phrase in an electronic document is a wonderful tool. So are e-books and electronic databases. What I am wondering is how to support students in a quest for knowledge when they rush research by the over-simple matching of search terms,3 or when they are unable to decode a retrieval set, overlooking not only relevant but intriguing items because they do not recognize related, or encompassing concepts. Subject headings can operate as a good bridge to relevant sources,4 from a record for an item that is close to what they wanted. But I would also invite students to wander around the books in our collections—to find one or two to open, consider, and then leave them for us to put back.


  1. The worst from the recent past, was Nailing Jelly to a Tree. The problem usually lies in a cute metaphor followed by an explanatory subtitle. A lot fall into the category of either management guides or self-help books, e.g. Our Iceberg Is Melting; Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers; Eat That Frog. Physics, however, offers some examples such as Dancing Wu Li Masters. A very useful book that uses this kind of ambiguity in the title well, however, is Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
  2. Of course librarians enjoy watching patrons learning. We really do not intend to intimidate anyone, without good reason.
  3. Library users readily accept, it seems, titles which insult them as either complete idiots, dummies, or mystified. All would be ridiculous, of course: why would an idiot even know the term “existentialism” or, want to study statistics or physics?
  4. E.g,. Computer Programming, from the record for Nailing Jelly to a Tree

Works cited

Library & Learning
Vol. 2 Issue 6 November 2010

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