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With the massive digitization of our society and the penetration of technology in all areas of our everyday lives, sciences and education, many of today’s researchers find themselves working in virtual environment. Many consider that exploring sources online is less efficient then browsing shelves in a library, since in the digital world you only find what you’re looking for.

This topic is discussed in the article Designing the next big thing: Randomness versus serendipity in DH tools [1] . The article is focused on the new wave of initiatives to enhance the research practice of humanities scholars, as it compares multiple tools that are designed to generate unknown, but relevant links to existing documents in order to surprise the researcher and improve her research with a fact or a source she was not aware of: this is what we call serendipity. But what is serendipity? By definition, it’s the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. In practice, it is the experience you encounter in a library, when you’re looking for one book on a bookshelf and you end up with a dozen, for whose existence you were ignorant, but which suit your research better. The article accentuate the fact that it is often argued that serendipity is not achievable with machines, which are purely deterministic, hence predictable. That is why scholars rarely base their research exclusively on digital sources found on the Internet or in a virtual library, and they have incentive to do part of their work in a library. Once the principle of serendipity is introduced, an experience with historians shows their willingness to rely more on virtual search for information. But is it feasible with machines? There are many attempts to answer this question. The principle of randomness, a way to reduce predictability in search results, is one of the main approaches used in this DH tools. Other techniques are reordering the results of a search query, all in the spirit of presenting wider variety of results, using informations form social medias or combine the virtual world with physical libraries. The tools presented are :

They try to quantify the quality of results obtained by each of the tools by outlining the elements of serendipitous process they reflect.

One of the tools mentioned in the first article is Serendip-o-matic, whose creation is described in the article Play as Process and Product: On Making Serendip-o-matic [2]. This is one of the DH tools used in research that is not based on randomness for introducing serendipity in its results. It was conceived through a  playful process, which is reflected in the implementation of the tool. Serendip-o-matic connects the targeted text to data in libraries, museums and archives, via a “magic machine” – a discovery algorithm primarily based on keyword search in large digital libraries. It parses the text entered and extracts the keywords from it.

Serendip-o-matic

Serendip-o-matic

An other approach is presented with the idea for implementation of the tool STAK, a mobile application. As shown in the article STAK – Serendipitous Tool for Augmenting Knowledge: Bridging Gaps between Digital and Physical Resources [3], the main inspiration and motivation for this application is from the user feedback that, once again, emphasizes the fact that the discovery of new information is more likely to happen in a library than on an online catalogue. The main idea for STAK is to determine the geographical proximity of the user to a stack in the library, propose texts retrieved from online databases relevant to the books of the stack and present them sorted by field, topic, type or relevance. They claim that in order to replicate serendipity, digital humanities should not rely exclusively on digital libraries, but more on a combination with physical resources. The ideal tool, according to this article, merges the virtual and physical working environment into a single search environment.

STAK

STAK

To summarize, [1] reveals the problem researches are facing and what they wish for in browsing tool, [2] presents one such tool and its creation, which proposes a keyword based discovery of new resources, while [3] introduces a revolutionary idea to merge both physical and virtual environment in order to create a new browsing experience.

It is clear that with technology we have access to more sources, and more information – we must exploit the opportunities it offers! As digitization of library contents continues, researchers will need tools to efficiently browse and explore data. Serendipity is essential for them, so the trend of introducing it in search engines will keep growing. Will we achieve a virtual experience realistic enough, so we have the factor of surprise in the digital world, taking advantage of the immense quantities of data? Or will we always go back to libraries to look for inspiration? Is virtual serendipity an utopia or is it the future of DH tools?

References:

[1] Martin, Kim; Quan-Haase, Anabel; (2014) Designing the next big thing: Randomness versus serendipity in DH tools

[2] Ridge, Mia; Croxall, Brian; Papaelias, Amy; Kleinman, Scott; (2014) Play as Process and Product: On Making Serendip-o-matic

[3] Martin, Kim; Greenspan, Brian ; Quan-Haase, Anabe; (2014) STAK – Serendipitous Tool for Augmenting Knowledge: Bridging Gaps between Digital and Physical Resources

 

 

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