Monday, April 2, 2012

Day 97: Mostly Serendipitous

Serendipity is a huge topic in librarianship. Heck, it's a huge issue in information and knowledge organization, period.

In fact, serendipity is one of the things most organizational systems are designed around. Dewey and Library of Congress, the two ways of organizing a library that you are most likely to be familiar with, both aim to "facilitate serendipity" by grouping similar volumes together. It's why you can go to "The Cookbook Section" or "The Canadian History Section"of the library and why we don't just organize all the books, fiction and non-fiction, by author's name or title. We want you to go to a section looking for a specific book and realize "hey, here's that book I was looking for, but this one right next to it is actually going to be better for what I need!"

We can get into all the arguments we want to about whether or not it's really serendipitous if it's been arranged that way, engineered serendipity if you will, but the fact is that it is useful, helpful and just plain fantastic whether or not it's "true" serendipity.

But I'd always just taken the word for granted. It's probably this or that Greek root meaning "divine guidance" or some such, peppered with a little Latin, left to stew in 3 or 4 different romance languages, before finally being looted by English. Or so I thought...

Lesson 97: The term "Serendipity" was inspired by a (mostly) Persian tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip" in which the titular three princes come upon information through happenstance and coincidence and are able to infer all manner of things.

The tale had been printed, reprinted, retold, reformed, combined with other tales, modified through the years adding elements from different tales from other locales or inspiring similar tales in other locales, but eventually made it to a book Horace Walpole read as a boy. It was this "silly fairy tale" that inspired him to coin the term "serendipity" in 1754.

If you're interested in reading a summary of the story, learning more about these Princes of Serendip and how the word serendipity came to be, I found this article in two parts that explains it all quite in depth.

Happy reading!

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