For many readers, serendipitous discovery and online books don’t mix. By contrast, a physical library of printed books is a world of opportunistic discovery by the open-minded researcher. A classical scholar who has gone to verify a reference is surrounded by beckoning avenues: as she hunts down the right book, her eye is caught by the title of another shelved nearby – previously unknown, it’s clearly worth a read. Having found the book she seeks, she is browsing to the right place in it – and again, her eye is caught, this time by a passage discussing a familiar crux from a novel angle.
By contrast, navigating to the right place in a digital library can be a clinical experience, a sudden jump to a URL at the end of a hyperlink, without the chance to enjoy the views or gather any flowers on the way. And, if you do stray from the path, the limitlessness of the places you can go can sicken rather than enchant: click after click after click, always with new lands over the horizon. Similarly, attempts by digitalists to introduce a serendipitous avenue of discovery that mimics the providential affordances of print (for example, the button that returns a random article or image) similarly seem unsatisfying, meaningless: too random.
In this regard, the physical constraints of the library have one up on the online. Fortuitous discovery is possible there, in a manageable space, filled with easily accessible and broadly relevant materials (thank your librarian: after all, these other books are just a Dewey decimal away). It’s a rich field in which to stumble across things that one is not seeking but will still be of interest, and which the open and questing mind of the good researcher will spot. By contrast, the online world seems to offer either zero distracting context, or too much of it – meaning the chances of finding something adjacent but relevant are correspondingly infinitely small.
How can an online library support serendipitous discovery?
One route to serendipity is travelling back along a hyperlink. A hyperlink realizes a reference: at the other end of the link lies the thing the author is talking about. When I follow a scholar’s link from his discussion of a Latin poem to the text of that Latin poem, I’m following in his footsteps: it’s an unsurprising journey, and I’m going exactly where I’m being led. But things start to get interesting when we reverse the journey: if I start off at the poem, and follow the link back upstream to the discussion. And they become more interesting as the asymmetry between the two ends of the journey grows.
OSEO supports a number of such journeys against the direction of the link.
First, we link a line in a text to the line in the commentary that discusses it – as anyone would expect us to. Text and commentary march in parallel in a symmetrical relationship, and it is very convenient that you can click on a line and see the notes on that line, but we can’t, in all honesty, claim any serendipity arising.
Our links to the Oxford Latin Dictionary are more interesting: whenever the OLD quotes a passage from the text as evidence of a meaning, we link to it. This too is convenient, for the person who doesn’t know what a particular word means, but more than that, it is a signal that this could be an unusual usage and that it’s worth seeing what OLD has to say about it.
Because the handful of citations of this poem in the OLD are scattered among hundreds of thousands of citations to other texts, our ability to zoom precisely into those citations adds a little opportunistic magic for the reader of Catullus. (We’ve begun a similar programme of linking to citations in the Oxford English dictionary for students of English texts.).
The asymmetry of that case is amplified when we start reversing links not just from one book, the OLD, but from many books. To complement our texts of Greek tragedies, we’ve looked at monographs in Oxford Scholarship Online and dug out the references to passages in those tragedies from the monographs’ indexes of passages discussed. An entry in a book’s index that says there’s a discussion of the opening lines of Sophocles’ Philoktetes on page 74 (for example) can be converted into a hyperlink from the opening lines straight to that page. We put that hyperlink, along with others like it, in a pane of extras right next to the text of the play.
So a reader of the play is alerted to all kinds of treatments of the lines: Lateiner and Spatharas discuss how this opening sets up the theme of disgust that runs through this play; Torrance discusses Sophoclean innovation, evidenced in line 2; Sommerstein uses 3–4 to illuminate the role of Neoptolemos in tragedy, while Dik uses the same lines to illustrate conventions of word order in iambic trimeters.
None of these linked monographs might be unknown to the reader, but what’s crucial is that these links flag their possible relevance, out of the almost infinite world of the online resource. We may not be able to emulate the opportunistic discoveries that can be made by a reader of a physical book in a physical library, but we can still use some of the affordances of digital – here, the humble hyperlink, simply reversed – to enable serendipitous discoveries in online books.
This article was written by Rupert Mann, a Senior Digital Development Programme Manager at Oxford University Press.