University of Calgary

Serendipitous searching

UToday HomeJuly 23, 2012

New York TimesEvan Sandhaus from the New York Times Company Research & Development Lab, centre, and Bruce Washburn from OCLC Research, far left, are joined by Libraries and Cultural Resources staff, from left, John Brosz, Shawna Sadler, Helen Clarke, David Brown and Damian Bauder. Photo by Dylan TetraultA challenge commonly encountered with digitized information storage and retrieval concerns the diminished role played by serendipity in the search process. This is particularly true in the case of literature, where no database has yet matched the thrill of browsing leisurely through an actual bookshelf and chancing happily on an unexpected find, directly or indirectly related to the object of one’s original investigation.

The research and development team at the New York Times is determined to approximate that experience virtually for online readers of its Sunday Book Review, and has enlisted the University of Calgary as a partner in the quest. The Times recently approached Shawna Sadler, technology officer at the Taylor Family Digital Library (TFDL), knowing that Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR) is invested in both touch technologies and data visualization in an information-rich environment.

“The library is proud of facilitating such achievements and is working hard to provide new opportunities for students across campus,” says Sadler, who has invited the participation of the university’s Innovations in Visualization (InnoVis) research group, providing computer science graduate students an extraordinary opportunity to contribute to this unique project.

InnoVis director, Sheelagh Carpendale, along with students Alice Thudt and Uta Hinrichs, had already created an interactive application called the Bohemian Bookshelf, a “visualization prototype for serendipitous browsing.” This software allows library visitors and online users to explore relationships between innumerable works of literature from various perspectives, including authorship, themes, timelines — even the colour of a volume’s cover and its page count. The Times is currently exploring the Bohemian Bookshelf’s visualization and interactive elements for eventual incorporation into its popular website.

LCR’s radio frequency identification (RFID) tags — added to every hardcopy title in the TFDL — will play a crucial role in eventually linking millions of books to millions of other books. OCLC Research has facilitated a data connection between the University of Calgary and the New York Times, using ISBN numbers, permitting the sharing of international book records in various rich formats.

The long-term goal of this collaboration is the enhancement of every reader’s book exploration experience through innovative visualization displays, both on library touch tables and in the online Sunday Book Review. Nobody wants to forego the accuracy and precision with which we can now target our searches for particular writers, titles, genres, plots and periods. Yet, it is an even more advanced technology which promises to restore the possibility of fortuitous discovery during the process of those searches, permitting us once again to expect the unexpected.