Andrew Abbott on how browsing works

I’m back from my summer of research in Papua New Guinea. I managed to read a couple of things over the summer, but one of the best — and one that is available open access — is Andrew Abbott’s article The Traditional Future: A Computational Theory of Library Research. The article focuses on several of the topics that Abbott has written on recently — what research is and how it works, different forms of research and knowledge, and the future of the library. I am a big fan of Abbott’s work, and I particularly like this piece, which combines a rich and humanistic sense of how life works with a very quanty sensibility — very typical of Abbott’s style.

The main purpose of Abbott’s paper is to describe how library-based research actually works. While standard social scientific work is sequential (you plan, gather data, then analyze it), he claims that library work is a massively parallel — as you read and pull things from the shelves you are planning, gathering, and analyzing all at once. Its a strikingly true portrayal of how library work works, and how important browsing and chance encounters are for library work.

Since most of the insights of library work come out of the incredibly complex and serendipitous processes that occur when a mind meets a library, Abbott claims that the only way to make library work better is to increase the value and capability of the mind that is engaged in it. Or, as I sometimes say, there is a lot of be said for reading eight hours a day. No matter how many fancy tagging programs you run or PDFs you download, if a tremendous amount of resources haven’t been put into the human using them, then it is all for naught.

Even worse, Abbott points out that the torrent of new information available on the Internet floods us with low-quality work (and ‘juvenalia’ he notes disparagingly), and makes it easier to find citations we want, when in fact what we need is a system — like a library shelf — which gives us things that we don’t know we needed until we ran into them. I think he may underestimate the serendipity of good web browsing, but his argument does speak actively to a topic that has rolled up on Savage Minds before: given that we can now browse forever, how do we balance different speeds of research? Now that we can browse an endless sea of information endlessly should we? And how much value is there in just sitting down with a book for a day, week, or month? Abbot comes down firmly on the side of good old fashioned deep engagement with a small number of quality texts.

Abbott’s work often has a contrarian, and perhaps even crotchety, streak. But I have to admit that two months in Papua New Guinea with limited Internet connection has reminded me of the value of not-browsing and just-reading. It was a pleasure to sit down with reports from PNG’s National Research Institute and actually read works that would otherwise get Zotero’d into oblivion in my everyday browsing. Its a piece worth reading, and I’d be interested in seeing what you think about it.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Andrew Abbott on how browsing works

  1. The link that Rex has put leads to the University of Hawaii – Electronic Resources’ page which seems to be restricted to students and staff only However I manage to find Abbott’s paper via Google at the following address:

    http://home.uchicago.edu/~aabbott/Papers/crl.pdf

    (I guess it must be open access otherwise one wouldn’t be able to download it)

    Thanks for the interesting blog post and for the reading suggestion!

  2. The link that Rex has put leads to the University of Hawaii – Electronic Resources’ page which seems to be restricted to students and staff only. However, I managed to find Abbott’s paper via Google at the following address:

    http://home.uchicago.edu/~aabbott/Papers/crl.pdf

    (I guess it must be open access otherwise one wouldn’t be able to download it)

    Thanks for the interesting blog post and for the reading suggestion!

  3. Rex, Cosimo, thanks so much. Serendipitously I have been urging participants in OAC to read Abbott’s Models and Methods: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, which, IMHO, does a brilliant job of positioning ethnography vis-a-vis history, standard causal (statistical) analysis, small-n comparisons and formal modeling. Abbott is rapidly becoming my most “good to think” social scientist ever.

  4. Rex, Cosimo, thanks so much. Serendipitously I have been urging participants in OAC to read Abbott’s _Models and Methods: Heuristics for the Social Sciences_, which, IMHO, does a brilliant job of positioning ethnography vis-a-vis history, standard causal (statistical) analysis, small-n comparisons and formal modeling. Abbott is rapidly becoming my most “good to think” social scientist ever.

  5. Sorry for the bad link — the new ‘automatic proxy’ at my uni sometimes makes things harder, not easier…

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