The Dying Art of Browsing

The tool which allows us to consult the world wide web is called a browser, but it is a misnomer. Looking for things via keywords and search engines is not proper browsing, it is superficial research on a par with using a telephone directory. Quite often it leads to exactly what we need and want – but that is all it leads to. The proper art of browsing is being led to things we did not know were there. The proper art of browsing, you see, is a form of magic called serendipity.

The word ‘serendipity’ has derived from a tale by Horace Walpole called The Three Princes of Serendip (1754) in which the heroes were always making fortunate discoveries. Fortunate discoveries. Most of the world’s great inventions fall under that heading.

My beloved career until new technology robbed it of its skills was picture research. In the good old days I would go to a picture library armed with a list of wants to illustrate a book. Sometimes the requirements were very specific – portraits of Winston Churchill, for instance, his family, his homes, events in his life. Sometimes they were fairly broad: the history of Russian culture. A picture library ranged from a room in a private house stuffed with a personal collection of old photographs to a unit in a business park lined with filing cabinets holding full and half-plate colour transparencies of fine art. Stephen Poliakoff caught the spirit of the old time picture library in his elegiac Shooting the Past.

Picture libraries, whether old and quaint or slick and new, were the very stuff of Serendip. As you riffled through a filing cabinet after Tsar Nicholas, you might come upon the corpse of Rasputin, which the author or editor had not thought to put on the list because a) they did not know it existed and therefore b) had not mentioned it in the text. Time after time you would find the exciting image in the same folder as the picture you were officially seeking, would take it back to the office with an air of mission accomplished and produce it at the next editorial meeting to be greeted by one word – Wow! I tell you, the high point of a picture researcher’s career was when you caused authors to rewrite the text to accommodate your illustrations.

Try doing that by computer.

By the year 2000 we had begun to ‘browse’ by keyword. A screen full of thumbnails resulted, and you had to view pictures not by the old magnifying lens but by squinting. Yes, I know about the zoom function but really. . .  Let’s not go down that route of complaining about everything. Let’s keep the complaint simple: calling up images by keywords is not browsing because it has nothing to do with Serendip. It is mechanical. Anyone can do it. Since the millennium, I would suggest, m’lud, illustrations in books have become dull, and no amount of colour-enhancing or image manipulation will make up for it. The day I spent ‘burning’ a CD with ‘files’ – each a six-figure number denoting an image – with no visual sense at all of what those files contained was the day I resigned from my beloved career. The true art of browsing was dead.

You can find just about anything you want and need via your browser. What you will never find is what was on the next page of that magazine or journal – the thing you hadn’t thought to ask for because you didn’t know it existed, the thing which might have caused you to rewrite your text if not your life. Serendip is the land where elemental spirits flit past, visible only from the corner of your eye or as the shadows of dreams as you sleep; it is the land of faerie; the land of fortunate discoveries.

When an animal – a ruminant – browses, it finds the clover amongst the grass. The computer browser is the equivalent of industrially produced animal feed emptied into a trough by a machine.

7 thoughts on “The Dying Art of Browsing

  1. As you’re no doubt aware, [visually] associative rather than [verbally] logical ordering formed the basis for Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Project, and supposedly still governs the arrangement of books in the library of The Warburg Institute, so that an unexpected but stimulating discovery may be found next to the item one set out to look for. Horst Bredecamp, in The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine, links this organising principle to the apparently chaotic great Kunstkammern and Wunderkammern collections of the 16th and 17th centuries. He is involved in a major group project [‘World as Image’] which carries this into the computer age.

  2. I didn’t know that, John. How fascinating! I’m currently reading Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary’ – a stunning psychological-philosophical account of where we are today (according to neuroscience) – and from that I can see that browsing, proper browsing, is a right brain activity. There was a TV programme on the brain recently where the presenter had a scan while thousands of satellite images of Afghanistan were flashed in front of him. His brain was wired up to record reactions he made when he – that is, his brain – noticed any concealed terrorist camps. He could not have done this exercise in speech, but the right brain picked them all out correctly. Browsing was my chief skill as a picture researcher and it’s a mighty tool for historical research.

  3. So true. There’s a used bookstore across the street from my home and I love to go there and browse the stacks. Yes it’s damp and there’s mold on the walls downstairs (good old Cape Cod has plenty) but one thing leads to another, making me, along with the bovines, a ruminant. Thanks for your artricle.

    • Nancy, you’re lucky to have a secondhand bookshop. Ours are all but gone, even here in Oxford. I found such wonders in them – always the things you never knew about it. With mechanical browsing, you have to know what you’re after. ‘If you like that then you’ll like this’ works to a point, but it’s still mechanical. Happy ruminations!

  4. I remember an assignment for a college literature course that required a trip over to an archival library on the Harvard campus to look at handwritten manuscripts of Christina Rossetti poems. There was something about the little cache brought out from some old storage vault and the excitement of being able to actively decipher her excised words and marginalia that was magical. It’s wonderful that we have so much at our fingertips now, but sad that we lose out on that feeling of knowledge being tangible.

    • I’ve been thinking a lot about your reflection, remembering the time when I called up a manuscript at the British Library sheerly by its acquisition number, in order to find a picture of medieval peasants, only to have this monster box wheeled to me on a trolley and, inside, the Lutterell Psalter. Gulp!!

      It’s more than a tactile thing. There is some exchange at the molecular level: for a moment you were occupying the same space, if not time, as Christina Rossetti. Or is that just mad?

      As we become increasingly digitilized, so we become increasingly ‘out of touch’ – quite literally – and it’s a form of sensory deprivation that will impoverish our lives.

      Here endeth the lesson for today! (and perhaps here beginneth a new post).

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