On serendipity and libraries…

Earlier this week, my son’s school played host to a visit from Martin Longstaff, who performs under the moniker of ‘The Lake Poets’. For any fans of quality football, this name may not be familiar – but for those who, like my son, support Sunderland AFC, you may recognise at least one his songs – “Shipyards” – which has been used as the theme song to the Netflix series “Sunderland til I die.”

In an interview a few years ago in the Guardian, Martin noted that the name for his musical persona came from a moment of serendipity whilst studying at a university not too far from this esteemed establishment.

“One day in the library at university Longstaff noticed a book, “It was called Recollections of the Lake Poets that explored the works of 19th century romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Coelridge, Southey… I read it and thought “The Lake Poets” would make a great band name.”

Brinnand, E ‘The Lake Poets – New Band Up North #37’ Guardian (30 Oct 2013)

A chance encounter in the library with a real world impact on the direction of a student’s trajectory through life.

As a library, we have different audiences with different needs. Many of you, as our students, will often be working to deadlines, with set reading lists and further reading available to you. Our academic (and postgraduate research student) colleagues needs will vary from discipline to discipline, project to project and from person to person; but many value the opportunity for a serendipitous discovery whilst browsing the books on our physical shelves. That unexpected discovery that might spark that inspiration or new question and lead the investigator on a new and unexpected trail of discovery… or perhaps just the inspiration to name your regular pub quiz team or a new pet cat.

Image: Browsing the shelves
Image: Skitterphoto, cc 0, https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-in-black-long-sleeved-looking-for-books-in-library-926680/

These different audiences and different needs are an ongoing challenge (and, of course, opportunity) for academic libraries. Where we provide more study spaces for increasing student numbers, we reduce the space for books to live on our shelves. Relocating our lesser-used collections to off-site or other storage impacts on the ability to browse that physical space in the hope of stumbling across something unexpected. But then, not all books are created equal.

That isn’t to say that our digital collections don’t allow for those moments of unanticipated revelation – design principles to cultivate the chances of experiencing it are as important in the digital realm as they are to the physical, and whether in a library or shopping environment. Where they are different is in how the user might experience them. They also offer opportunities to reach a wider audience (both geographically and practically), or reunite collections in a way which is now difficult in the physical world (see the Durham Priory Library Recreated project as one example of this).

You may be the student who values above all else immediate access to a journal article on your reading list via your phone or laptop. You may wherever possible avoid having to navigate the shadows of the library shelves or rolling stacks, except where you have to get your hands on that single copy of the latest edition of your module text book (and where this isn’t available as an e-book). But perhaps next time you do, look at what else surrounds it on the shelves. Perhaps ponder, if only for a second, what else others have dedicated their passions to writing about, and wonder who else has held that copy and read its words (or simply used it as a temporary perch for their spiced chai latte as they scrolled through the latest article on buzzfeed on their phone, or lovingly admired the meticulous revision notes of a fellow Durham student via Instagram).

Do you have any stories about serendipitous discoveries from our or another library’s collections? Let us know!

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