Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Backwards, towards serendipity

Kim Dulin of Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab offered a provocation a week back that I’m enjoying wrestling with. Talking about the future of libraries in a digital age, she offered the stark observation that most research today begins with Google, might occasionally proceed to Google Books or to Amazon, and ends in the library if it looks like the answers are in a book, and that one might borrow instead of buying a book. Librarians would like to reverse this hierarchy, at least in part, and unlock “the good stuff” in libraries for broader audiences.

I’m guilty of approaching libraries in exactly the way Dulin describes. In defense of my library abuse (neglect, I think, is more accurate), I’m often researching topics for blog posts. I rarely work on blog posts over multiple days – I write because something’s caught my attention, and the post is a way to engage with a question thoroughly enough to get it out of my mind for a few days, but not to detract from longer projects. The blog post that requires a trip to the library is the post that doesn’t get written. And because I like to write using links, I’m reluctant to cite material that requires a reader to visit a library to understand the reference I’m making.

But I’m trying to work in earnest on the book I’ve been threatening for some years now, and neither of those excuses apply. Rather than waiting for the promised future where Google indexes the entirity of human knowledge and I can search inside books as easily as I search web pages, I’m trying to take advantage of Harvard’s ludicriously wonderful library system and search the universe of paper books as thoroughly as I try to search online.

(We are, by the way, awfully far away from the Google future. I was trying to learn about the flow of doctors and teachers from Haiti to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1960s, after Congolese independence, and couldn’t find a way to construct a query that turned up results from a universe in which Haitians were helping another developing nation, not receiving aid.)

One of the topics I hope to write about is serendipity. I’ve written before about the unintended consequences of moving away from structures that lead us to unexpected and useful information – shelves of libraries, the front page of paper newspapers – and am hoping to explore the many ways people are trying to engineer serendipity in online spaces. An etymology of the term leads back to Horace Walpole, antiquarian, author and son of the British Prime Minister. In a letter written in 1754, a missive that primarily acknowledges receipt of a painting sent from Florence, Walpole shares a discovery about a crest of arms he’s encountered.

“This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.”

There’s lots to pull apart in that paragraph. Neither example Walpole gives his reader does an especially good job of illustrating the idea of unexpected discovery through accidental sagacity, though his definition is one I find more satisfying than later definitions of serendipity as happy accident – Walpole seems to acknowledge a deep structure to serendipity where chance helps the informed mind, but perhaps not the untrained mind.

In the spirit of putting libraries first, I searched Harvard’s catalog looking for a contemporary version of The Three Princes of Serendip. I couldn’t find one. But, as this is Harvard, where librarians have ongoing debates about whether they should attempt to acquire every single law book published in any given year, or merely the most interesting ones, the library’s online catalog included the 1722 edition of the “The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of SARENDIP. Intermixed with Eight Delighful and Entertaining NOVELS, Translated from the Persian into French, and from thence done into English” and published by William Chetwood at Cato’s-Head in Russel Street, Covent Garden.

I assumed that accessing a 300 year old book would require a background check, a training course in handling historical materials, a set of white gloves and a convincing explanation for why my interest in serendipity required direct access to a historical relic. What actually happened was this: I visited Houghton rare book library, was instructed to leave everything but my laptop in a locker, signed up for a special collections readers card, requested the book, and ten minutes later, was presented with a small, non-descript brown volume resting atop a plexiglass book stand and a weighted cord to hold pages in place. No gloves, no warnings, no questions.

And so I spent three hours reading the “silly fairy tale” Walpole had read 250 years ago. I can’t disagree with his assessment. The opening story, with a partially blind, dentally challenged lame camel carrying butter, honey and a pregnant woman, is a pretty good yarn. But the subsequent stories have lost something in translation – from Persian to Italian, to French and then to English. By the time we’re encountering a sinister, disembodied hand that destroys humans, and is persuaded to destroy livestock through the deployment of a magic mirror, we’ve moved out of the realm of deductive puzzles and into the realm of magic. At a certain point, the Princes’ journeys take the back seat to the tales of seven novelists, who’ve been brought from every corner of the world, to tell stories and soothe the illness of a great emperor – it’s a classic frame tale, a story that makes possible the telling of several other stories, and it’s hard to see how these “novels” advance the larger plot (until the last, which is a thinly disguised discourse on the king’s existing predicament.) It’s worth asking whether Chetwood, in the business of selling novels to a London audience, may have recharacterized the Persian and Indian tales that make up the volume as “novels”, hoping to sell more adventures of Moll Flanders, “twelve years a whore and five times married.”

As an American, I tend to assume that anything that’s survived 300 years has an importance and dignity associated with its longevity. Handling the Chetwood edition of The Three Princes, it’s pretty apparent that this is a better example of popular literature than of timeless prose. The copy Harvard has is very well thumbed late in the volume, after the Serendip tale has ended and there’s a quick, unrelated romantic novel to fill out the volume. And Chetwood’s other offerings, advertised in the frontspiece, include a weighty sounding French history, and a whole lot of stories that appear to feature women of loose virtue. The history of the book suggests that it’s not the translation of a great Persian literary work, but the collection of a set of popular tales, tied loosely together. In 1557, a Venetian printer, Michele Tramezzino produced a book, allegedly translated from Persian by “Christoforo Armeno” (likely a fiction) that sewed together a set of popular tales, many of them from India. Serendip, a term for Sri Lanka, was used as the title as it was in the news – a Spanish jesuit had recently brought Christianity to the island, and audiences would have found the term both exotic and familiar.

Here’s what I got from visiting Houghton and reading Armeno/Tramezzino/Chetwood’s tale: the Princes were able to make strange and unexpected discoveries not through luck, but through preparation and education. Their father, the Emperor Jafer, has had them taught by the best scholars of his land, who’ve educated them in “Morality, Politicks and all polite Lerning in general”. When Jafer quizzes his sons and discovers that they’re wise, well-educated and humble, he banishes them from the kingdom, not to punish them, but to encourage them to “travel through all the World, to the end that they might learn the Manners and Customs of every nation.” By the time they encounter the tracks of the ill-used camel, it’s no surprise to the reader that the Princes make a Holmesian deduction about its load and rider – with such detectives on the case, we’re amazed that they’ve not determined it’s coloration, age, dam and sire.

This is useful for me, as I’m trying to make the case that serendipity isn’t a product of luck, or being open to benificent chance. I want to make the case that serendipity is the product of hard work, through the careful structuring of a system to encourage chance encounter (the work done to arrange library books by subject on shelves) or the efforts of a sage curator, who uses her knowledge of a field and of her audience to offer recommendations. An understanding of serendipity that favors sage interpretations of random encounters rather than just the happy accident is consonant with my arguments.

I didn’t need a 300 year old book to bring me that insight. Richard Boyle, a scholar who has examined the Sri Lankan roots of a few dozen words that appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, has written a pair of essays that connect serendipity to Walpole and to the three princes. I found them online, a few clicks into a Google search for “serendipity”, and quickly discovered that Boyle is engaged in a debate with the OED about the “correct” – Walpolean – meaning of serendipity, which aligns more closely with the sagacious mind than with the happy accident.

What encountering the book did for me was shatter the illusion that there was, somewhere out there, a brilliant, forgotten text that contained the true origins and meaning of serendipity. There’s not, or at least, the little brown volume I spent yesterday reading isn’t it. The thing itself, the original text, is a little disappointing – the moment of genius is Walpole’s connection between a silly fairy tale and his observations about the nature of discovery. And there’s a little genius associated with Boyle’s quest to get the OED to recognize that “serendipity” may be a vague and squishy term today, but had a specific, if hard to illustrate, meaning when Walpole coined it.

Even if reading the 1722 manuscript wasn’t helpful in advancing my understanding of serendipity, it was viscerally satisfying in a way that research on the web rarely is for me. I mean this not in the Walter Benjamin sense of encountering the aura of the original object – instead, what’s exciting for me is the idea that I may have been the first person in fifty years to touch a particular page. The web, by its very nature, makes things accessible. Even if a page has never been read by human eyes, we know it’s been indexed, cataloged, page ranked and is potentially accessible at a moment’s notice, should someone type the right combination of keywords into a search box. Digging into the depths of Harvard’s libraries, four stories below ground, or in the hush of Houghton’s reading room, there’s the magic of an archeological dig, the possibility of encountering something strange and wonderful below the surface at any turn.


Thanks to the kind folks at Widener and Houghton Libraries, who clearly understand that libraries are as much about magical stumbling as about knowledge and information, and for Berkman for giving me an enchanted sigal that allows me to access these realms.

2 Responses to “Backwards, towards serendipity”

  1. Spencer Yancey says:

    How many years can a digital library last? There was once an Emperror of China; He burned every work of literature in fear of the masses. A dictator of Germany, Many of his reich’s literary research of experiments destroyed? The mayan civilization, only a handful of their text still exist. How many years can a digital Library last? Jefferson library, well preserved; but, paper won’t last forever.

  2. Maria Daniels says:

    Great post. I used to think about this way back when I worked on the Perseus Project, and digital libraries still haven’t cracked this nut. Sure, systems can now expertly deliver a specific item in response to a specific query. But how do we replicate (or rebuild) the labyrinth of past scholarship online, to facilitate new inquiries and connections?

    This quest for serendipity — in my gloomier moments I think of it as the future of rational society — is aided by the curators and librarians with systems expertise; but it utterly depends upon the people who will willingly venture into the stacks, wherever they are, with eyes open for a series of unanticipated but significant encounters with past knowledge.

    And I don’t think those minds have to be highly prepared, by the way. We did a famous demo at Perseus to a group of elementary school students who entered a hot debate about the significance of how many different words there were for “man” as opposed to “woman” in ancient Greek.

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