The Endangered Art of Browsing

A few years ago, I attended a meeting at the newly renovated local branch of the library. I arrived early in order to give myself some time to browse. The building, where I had spent many a meandering Saturday , had been closed for some time due to the renovation, and the formerly musty and carpeted interior had been transformed into an airy modern space with brightly-colored furniture and slick tile floors. But something about the new building made me uneasy. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the shelves, racking my brain to locate the source of my discomfort. And then it hit me.

Where are all the books?

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

It wasn’t the new shelves or the brighter space. There were really and truly disturbingly fewer books occupying the shelves. I felt as if I had arrived home to find my house redecorated and my family members missing. The old collection hadn’t been replaced with newer volumes; there were just a sparse number gracing the shelves. But this was a library – a place for books – it was not supposed to be  just some beacon of modern architecture with a couple of novels dusting the shelves.

I attended the meeting in the “community” room, and I sat uncomfortably in the hard plastic chairs that had replaced the wooden and chipped seats of yore. I tapped my foot on the floor beneath my seat impatiently as I waited for the moment when I could ask the question that was pounding on my brain.

When I finally inquired about the missing pieces of the collection, the woman who served as the central library’s representative made a startling revelation:

“When we packed the books, we didn’t seal the boxes properly. So, water leaked in and damaged the books. We had to discard them.”

I asked,”So, when will you replace them?”

“Oh no, we won’t be doing that. We are adding to our digital collection anyway, so people will have more access to e-books. The branches will eventually be open less hours due to budget, but we are doing so much with our electronic collection…”

Her voice trailed off in the background of my mind. All I could see was red, and all I could hear was static. Well, how the *beep* am I supposed to browse here now?

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor's office.

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor’s office.

I am not a technophobe, nor am I a stranger to biblio-centric social networking or from ordering books online, but browsing is an essential part of my life. I can never spend just a few minutes in a library or bookstore. The shelves of books pull me in like a magnet, and I need to spend a little time visiting at each one.

On Saturday, I lost myself for an hour or so, existing only within the confines of Music Espresso, the New England Conservatory Bookstore. My fingers pushed back one piece of sheet music after another, as I searched for the particular piece I wanted.  I prefer the editions with thicker, darker covers with opaque cascades of notation printed on buttery yellow paper, a hint of the past from whence the music came.

After locating the two pieces for which I had searched in the bins sorted by composer, I crossed the room to a taller shelf containing novel-length books about the practice of music. The Art of the Courtesan. Hmm, I never thought such a book would have existed.  I took out my iPhone and opened up the camera app.Click. Capture that title, gonna share it with my husband. I turned the back of the  book over to read the summary. The Phonetic Alphabet for SingersWhat? Is there such a thing? That’s fascinating…I want to find out more about that. I thumbed the pages, enjoying the flip-book effect of quickly viewing the different phonetic symbols. Click. The Alexander Technique. Oh, I totally forgot about that. I haven’t thought about the Alexander technique since college. I should look into that again.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

There is a very specific delight in finding a book, an idea, that you had never imagined would have existed. Recommendations based on previous reading are useless to the browser’s curiousity. I liked The Diary of Anne Frank because of the earnestness of the writing, because it’s a peek into someone else’s world. I don’t necessarily want to read about every book ever written teenagers in the Holocaust. I already have a great Italian cookbook in The Silver Spoon; why would I need three more books on the same subject? These types of recommendations are useful for the aspiring expert, but they are exhausting for the established thinker who craves new ideas and deeply hungers to become lost in thought rather than engaged in some neurotic fact-finding mission.

Interacting with a book through browsing allows you to experience the gestalt of the book, to view the cover, the summary at the back, to experience the true volume of the book’s surface, to thumb through with the soft light reflecting off the pages. It is a tactile and sensory experiences: the pages breathe as you turn them, the cover art may attract you to a topic you had never thought about before, the delicate steps you take from section to section, cradling books of interest in your arms while enjoying the quiet tranquility that naturally occurs in a library or a book store.

An idea I hadn't know had existed, a browser's gold.

An idea I hadn’t know had existed, a browser’s gold.

A digital collection, while offering many benefits for research, cannot provide the same sensuality as an afternoon spent between the shelves full of glorious paper books of all colors, shapes, and sizes, adorned with images, ripe to the touch and full of juicy new ideas just waiting to be explored. The journey of browsing offers no pre-planned destination; it is an adventure into the land of ideas.

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