Is browsing lost?

This holiday session I was out and about, thinking about buying a book for my brother who was coming down from Michigan to visit. I didn’t know what to get him and thought I would go out to browse around and see what I could find. I wanted this serendipitous discovery moment where I found the perfect book and collected a great story that I could tell him about the discovery process. I wanted to have a gift buying experience that was my own and one that I could share with my brother and make the gift more personal. In the adult world, gifts aren’t really about gifts as much as they are about sharing and relationships.

As I drove by the closed Borders bookstore, I think of businesses as “Internet road kill”. I thought “how might I do this in the future?”. Amazon doesn’t really fill that browsing void for me and I often feel like a digital sheep being herded from a “one you might like” pen to “another you might like” pen until I am digitally slaughtered in the checkout queue and deposited back into the web. I want to roam free without gentle digital guiding hands pushing me towards a purchase.

What story am I going to tell my brother? I went to Amazon and someone that I have never met and who may or may not be real recommended this book? It won an award that I am not sure it merited or was just a marketing ploy so it would be front and center on the webpage I was surfing and I was really in a rush and I needed to get you something? So Merry Christmas, I hope you like it. Well if you don’t like it at least you will have the same book that everyone else has so you can fake it if someone asks you if you have read it. You can say “I just got it for Christmas but I have been too busy to read it”. I love you man and wow, you got me a book too.

That is not the experience I want to have. I want to have the experience of going to a bookstore with my brother, finding a book that I love and buying it on the spot, putting it in his hands and telling him how much I loved this book and telling him this is a pre-Christmas present. That is the experience I just had and the book was “Little Brother” by Corey Doctorow and the experience was awesome.

So as I am driving over to Barnes and Noble and listening to NPR, they talk how the bookstore is “e’ing” its business. I think this is code that means they will become like Amazon. I am thinking about e-books, libraries and my experience and a light goes off in my head. Libraries might be the only game in town where people can still browse. As I read that libraries are embracing this new “e” world and clearing their shelves of material, I wonder if they are missing an opportunity. How might libraries create a richer browsing experience for the patron, knowing that browsing is embedded in our DNA.

As humans, we browse. We pick up, feel, look, touch and scan all the time gathering information about the world and the objects of our interest. This is how we interact with the world and this experience cannot be totally replaced by a screen. So as others lament that the library is dying like some befuddled beached whale caught in the changing tides of e-books, I see us becoming the only game in town where people can browse and make unexpected discoveries and experiences.

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