Monday, September 28, 2009

Messing About in Libraries: The Delectable Art of Browsing

To many of us, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine researching anything before the advent of the internet. Discovery of information before the era of google seems as onerous as hauling water out of a well. So seduced have we been by the simplicity and effectiveness of entering a few words into the rectangle at the top of the screen and — wowza! — dozens, hundreds or thousands of “hits” come up. If none is quite right, just change the search terms a bit and try again. For researchers, it’s like winning the lottery again and again.

But. . . you knew there would be a “but”. . . are we depriving ourselves of anything worthwhile when we boil the art of research down to finding 30,000 google hits in 18 microseconds? I would maintain that we are, for several reasons, and I am going to write about one of them: browsing. Sometimes there is both pleasure and success to be found by poking around in the shelves of libraries or bookstores, just to see what we might find.A few years ago, I wrote G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book, a potpourri of enjoyable mathematical ideas in an ABC format. Unlike the many alphabet books written for young children, this one is directed at readers in the intermediate and middle school grades (as is its sequel, Q is for Quark: A Science Alphabet Book). So how am I going to fill 26 slots with delightful math? Many entries popped into my mind right away. “A” is going to be for “abacus” because I love the fact that proficient abacus users can calculate lengthy addition or subtraction problems faster than the fastest calculator user. “Z” is going to be for “zillion” because it’s not a number at all but people often don’t realize that, so by discussing the difference between real numbers that end in “illion” and fake ones, I can discuss the actual meaning of number. As for what’s going to come in between A and Z, I had lots of ideas but not enough to fill out the book, so. . . let’s browse the library!

And so it was that I stumbled across Maps, Tracks and the Bridges of Königsberg: A Book About Networks by Michael Holt, a 1975 picture book that was one of many in the now sadly defunct “Young Math” series from the now sadly defunct publishing company, Thomas Y. Crowell. What fun! A great “K” word — Königsberg. I had heard about the dilemma that the residents of Königsberg, Germany, had tried to solve — to see if they could walk across each of their city’s seven bridges exactly once (all had to be crossed once and none could be re-crossed). No one could figure out a way to do it, but for centuries they were taunted by the prospect that a hidden solution eluded them. Finally the mathematician Leonhard Euler developed the postulates and theorems of a new branch of mathematics now known as graph theory or network theory in order to solve the Königsberg bridge problem. His goal was to figure out how to walk the bridges, or to prove it impossible. He succeeded not only in why the seven Königsberg bridges could not be walked once time each, but under what circumstances it could or could not be done for any network of bridges. Network theory not only proved to have many applications (useful, for example, in designing networks of cables) but it also laid the foundation for another branch of mathematics, topology. For me, as a researcher and writer, the cool thing is that I wouldn’t have thought of including the bridges of Königsberg in G is for Googol if I hadn’t bumped into them in Holt’s book on the shelves of a school library during a break between two assembly programs.

So that was an example of browsing, more-or-less aimlessly, to see what I could find and how I could tie it in. But there is another, more directed, way that browsing the shelves has proved fruitful in my research. It’s when I know what I’m looking for but neither google, for all its power, nor the library catalog nor anyone or anything else can tell me where to find it. For example. . .

Recently I have been doing research for an upcoming book called Where in the Wild? Mysteries in Nature Concealed. . . and Revealed, the next book in the series that began with Where in the Wlld? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed… and Revealed. One of the entries in What in the Wild? will be about the diggings of a star-nosed mole, a small mammal whose activities leave unwelcome mounds of soil on lawns and pastures. Moles, whether star-nosed or not, are usually not loved by landowners whose property they think of as their own.

Books and websites about moles turned out to be informative but a bit dull, focused on the minutia of their biology or harsh methods of putting an end to them and their excavations. So I wondered if I could find an interesting book with a section about moles. My initial searches in google and the public library catalog turned up no such book, probably because any that existed did not have the word “mole” in the title or subtitle or as one of the subject terms entered into the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data. Still, I figured that at least one such book must exist. I would employ a more venerable method of research.

And so it was that I found myself on hands and knees in the Rockridge branch of the Oakland Public Library, exploring the bottom shelf of the 596s just to see what I could find.

Within a few minutes, I had walked my fingers to Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife by Richard Conniff. The title seemed promising, and sure enough the table of contents led me to a chapter called “Notes from the Underground” — about moles. And guess what: star-nosed moles have a starring role! Conniff describes this creature in a most quotable way as a mole that “looks as if it’s got a sea anemone stuck on its snout.” And from there followed all kinds of fascinating information about the critters themselves and a colorful curmudgeon (of the human variety) who pursues them at the behest of disgruntled landowners in England. Once again, browsing trumped google!

The other day, a student at Landstuhl Elementary/Middle School on the U.S. Army base in Landstuhl, Germany, asked me the secret of success in researching books, and I told him a few things I thought of on the spot, but it didn't occur to me at the time to tell him what I am saying here. To rewrite Kenneth Grahame’s delightful line (which, as it happens, was spoken by the character Mole in Wind in the Willows), “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.” In this case, Grahame’s ode to blissful aimlessness might be rewritten for researchers as “There is nothing so delightful — or fruitful — as messing about in libraries.”


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Great post, David! It nicely demonstrates how "chance favors a prepared mind" and that a properly educated person retains an open mind and still takes joy in discovery!

CC said...

Then there are some of us who still browse books and libraries as well as the internet.
One of the things I love about browsing the net is doing so in museums and libraries all over the world, when I am not able to visit in person.

Lynn said...

I really miss being able to browse libraries. Now I have to do it with a toddler in tow, running away from me every 5 seconds, so the internet is my fried (can do that while he naps). I'm so happy to have seen this post, because I remember that I read about G is for Googol awhile ago and meant to check it out.