Photo: New York Public Library Archives
In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings — one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The second writing I’ve selected, titled “On Browsing”, was posted on April 6, 2005, and was written while I was living in Champaign-Urbana, IL. At the time, I was teaching part-time at a community college in a town just on the Illinois-Indiana border, and I recall fondly spending down time in the college’s tiny library browsing in the manner described in this post.
Browsing is one of several activities that have been reinvented in the maturation of the Internet era (think sending and opening mail, buying something at a kiosk, posting a notice on a bulletin board). Open up your web browser of choice and just follow the mouse, browsing your way through the vastness of cyberspace into the far reaches of information oblivion. Of course, browsing is never as unstructured and limitless as we might assume. There are frameworks in place which constrict the range of our reach and guide our virtual paths. The web becomes increasingly smaller when we fall into habitual routines of use — we visit the same news sites and web portals and read the same blogs (in my own private blogosphere, I’m always amazed that the same handful of blogs link to the very same factoids and all link back to each other — the circle is rarely broken). Recently, I’ve found del.icio.us to be an increasingly engaging point of departure for more expansive browsing, but even there you find the same kind of conglomeration of particular locations on the web.
Browsing the book stacks in the library is limited as well, although in different ways. A single library lacks the near-infinite scale of possibilities of the web (that said, though, go ahead and try to exhaust the resources at your local library) and one is always subject to the practical organization of its material holdings, a system of classification grouped by subject matter and ordered alphanumerically. You pop into the 800′s or maybe the ND’s (depending on which system is used), crane your head to the side, squint your eyes, and begin to decipher the titles and authors and editors and volumes and editions. Cloth-covered hardbacks with frayed and faded spines may have the call number penned in some long-dead librarian’s neatest script, or plastic-laminated trade paperbacks with their machine printed call stickers so easy to read shimmer in the florescent light. Then, one spine in particular piques your interest and you place your index finger on the top of the binding, tentatively tilting the book out of its place so that you may view the cover. A quick glance later you have either pushed the book back or pulled it entirely out, fanning the pages with your thumb or scanning the table of contents. You might even sit down in the aisle to read a few pages before borrowing the text.
My tactile appreciation of book browsing may suggest a bias against web browsing and a trite sentimentality. This may be true, but the fact of the matter is that I am a perpetual computer user and web browser. Since finishing my graduate degree a few years ago — a time during which I made daily trips to university libraries and spent long hours in their assorted institutionalized interiors — I am at best a part-time academic (pseudo, at that) who doesn’t have the freedom or necessity to spend so many hours in the stacks. A wireless laptop and a broadband Internet connection have compensated this change in my scholarship status for the most part, and replacing my wonder at having access to countless rare and under-exposed texts is the ease at which I can instantly conjure up information in response to literally any query that occurs to me. There is a distinct sensual element, though, in my computer use — I do appreciate the tactile and aesthetic qualities of browsing the day away on my iBook (Apple is betting on that, too).
A recent layover in a nameless airport recently has had me thinking about the journey from desiring information to possessing information, which speaks to the notion of “browsing.” Airports have become — out of necessity — informational nodes where travelers may reconnect with the world in between the strangely disconnected and isolated experience of flying in planes, riding on trains, and driving in cars. The compressed nature of waiting in the airport (psycho-spatially, it seems) along with the saturation of information highlights two kinds of access to information: the colloquial and the technological (my terms feel inadequate, but I’ll do the best I can with them). Technological access to information is the most obvious: with computer on lap and cellphone in ear we are empowered by the pervasiveness of information and feel confident in the control we have in obtaining it; information is ubiquitous and seemingly democratic. On the other hand, colloquial access to information is generally super-local, face-to-face, handshake-to-handshake. This process involves quite a bit more work and is never entirely in our control. We may have difficulty finding a person both in possession of the information we desire as well as willing to share that information. We may have questions about the reliability of that information or the subjectivity of the informant. In short, physically walking up to an individual and asking him or her a question can be ripe with uncertainty.
Back to browsing. Information is information, whether a PDF on a website or an article in an anthology. Putting aside the question of authority or legitimacy, the information contained in each form is identical. However, it is the path followed to obtaining that information which is so markedly different in each case. I ask: Specifically, what is the character of that journey from not knowing to knowing? Who is met along the way? What distractions or dérives reshape our initial questions and open up unforeseen doors leading to unexpected answers? We need not place one mode in opposition to the other–virtual vs. physical–but can embrace difference as just that: difference.
So, today I am browsing in the library and my gaze stumbles upon a title, God’s Own Junkyard,which strikes some chord with me and I grab the book from the shelf–a slim, hardcover with lots of interesting photographs of things I’m interested in: the built environment in the US. Next to one of the photographs is a brief quotation of Gertrude Stein — ”In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is” — someone who I’ve always wanted to read more of, and then I’m on Google searching for the reference. It’s from her book A Geographical History of America which this library doesn’t own, but I venture into the 800′s where a few other books by Stein are shelved and I pull down a compact but thick volume of her collected writings and then leaf through the pages; it’s one of those perfectly sized little Modern Library books from the 50′s. And this is the little gem I find:
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system of pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
From her piece entitled “Tender Buttons.” The difference is spreading — the journey from not knowing to knowing is a remarkable passage.