Monday, April 13, 2009

Another Nail in the Coffin of Browsing

I was never a "regular" at the Joseph Patelson Music House in Manhattan, described today by Daniel Wakin in The New York Times as "an 1879 carriage house that sits a baton’s throw across 56th Street from the Carnegie Hall stage door." When I was living in Stamford, Connecticut and spending just about all of my spare time in New York, there were many alternatives to Patelson's for buying sheet music and scores. Most of them were excellently stocked and usually better organized. Every now and then, however, I would check in on the bins of used sheet music near the front door of Patelson's and would usually come away with at least one gem of a discovery. I had plenty of places to go to make a specific purchase, but Patelson's was my first choice when all I wanted to do was browse.

Wakin wrote his piece to mourn the closing of Patelson's, which is due to occur before the end of this month. In this age of e-commerce, I suspect few are surprised; but this particular closing reminded me that it is not only the specialty stores for books and music that are dying but also the physical pleasure of browsing in such shops. Software can make recommendations, and it may even introduce us to useful social networks. However, these are no substitutes for browsing, which is just not a priority among those who deploy and promote e-commerce technology. This is not to deny the value of the technology. I am helpless without it, but only when I have a specific need for a book or recording that cannot wait for some fortuitous encounter with it on a store shelf in the future. As far as browsing goes, my current quarters have so little space for books that I make far fewer purchases and therefore almost never browse any more.

However, browsing also had educational value when I was a student. It was an exercise in discovery, combining keen observation with enduring patience. I suspect I can still go back to the Bibliography in my doctoral thesis and pick out the items that I discovered through browsing. It is hard for me to imagine scholarship without browsing; yet, as just about every phase of education becomes more Web-based, I have to recognize that browsing is liable to vanish from student practices. This may not engender the sort of stupidity that Nicholas Carr had attributed to Google usage, but I suspect that it will lead to a more impoverished student experience. It is hard to anticipate the consequences of such impoverishment, but it is unlikely that they will be beneficial.

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