Score One for Serendipity

Serendip-o-maticModern search tools and discovery platforms have all but eliminated the joy of the serendipitous find. All of us old enough to remember card catalogs can also recall the pleasure of randomly discovering a useful bit of information or a wonderful book never dreamt of while sifting through the cards in search of something completely different. Some software tries to reintroduce serendipity – the Koha system my library is about to implement has a “browse shelf” feature, for example – but these are wishy-washy attempts at best.

Enter the Serendip-o-matic. Enter text – any text – into the big box and feed it to the hippo (try it; you’ll see). Back come all sorts of oddball things, images and original source materials selected based on words the app grabbed from the text you entered. All or none may seem to you to be relevant. The Serendip-o-matic site is quite clear that this is a tool for inspiration, not a search mechanism dedicated to cold, hard lists of facts.

I played with it for an hour or so, feeding in quotes and getting all sorts of fun things back. When I fed it Santa Fe and New Mexico, it returned the sort of images I expected… but also a lovely botanical drawing of Physalis subulata Rydb. var. neomexicana, the New Mexican groundcherry, a plant I’d never heard of and had to investigate, which sidetracked me for a quite a while in a very happy way.

Is it a useful tool for your library users? Depends on how useful they will find it to take a break from strictly linear thinking and take a chance on inspiration, on finding a connection they never expected to discover. Is it useful for you? I recommend it for odd moments when you are looking for new sources that might be helpful later. Also for 4:00 Friday afternoon.

Here’s what the creators say:

“Serendip-o-matic is the product of One Week | One Tool, an open-source software-development institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.”

“Serendip-o-matic connects your sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world. By first examining your research interests, and then identifying related content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, and Flickr Commons, our serendipity engine helps you discover photographs, documents, maps and other primary sources.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, that lovely botanical image came from the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, and I want to go see what else they have to offer…