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By Rhonda Keaton, LexisNexis Librarian Relations Consultant
As the season’s change and the holidays near, I think more and more about the past year. Sure, there is the accounting of what went well and what went wrong but I like to think of the unexpected things that happened that brought more reward than originally expected. I like to count the instances of serendipity that happen in my work and in my life. Serendipity has enriched my life intellectually and emotionally. This year it's even stepped in and surprised me by giving my career a new trajectory into Librarian Relations.
“Serendipity” and I have a long history. I remember well that it was the first new word I learned in college. I was at Baylor University and it seemed wherever I looked, there was that word, again! There were serendipity socials, a retail store named “Serendipity” and the concept of serendipity being discussed by a number of students. Yes, serendipity was everywhere and I knew I had to break me off a piece of it to survive college.
Of course I went straight to the library to look it up. Mercifully, I had been schooled by an old fashioned English teacher who had the charming habit of chucking a hefty leather bound dictionary at a student’s head should they not be prepared to recite a definition of any random word she fancied for the day’s reading. One either developed quick twitch muscle fiber or a penchant for etymology in order to survive. No dictionary dodging was necessary for me – I wanted to drink deeply from the well of knowledge.
Never satisfied with just a definition, I learned we have Horace Walpole, an 18th century English writer and politician to thank for the word serendipity. "Serendipity” first appeared in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1754. Walpole was inspired by a Persian fairy tale, called "The Three Princes of Serendip." He recounted the story of the prince’s travels far and wide turning every potential disaster into a triumph. Walpole explained that the princes, “… were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of …” I liked the concept … Discoveries by accident and sagacity. Hmmm …
And serendipitous happenings have not stopped since then. The inspiration for this article occurred while doing a little bookstore browsing and thumbing a copy of “Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs.” The author, Dr. Morton Myers gives a wonderful definition, "Serendipity refers to looking for one thing and stumbling over something else that proves to be of greater value. What serendipity means is misadventure, an inadvertent observation, a happenstance that a sharp, open mind can exploit to find its true benefit." Dr. Morton accidentally discovered how cancer metastasizes in the stomach and recounts his story and others in his book. From the X-Ray to Ex-Lax, nylon to NutraSweet, penicillin to the Popsicle, and Velcro to Viagra, the list of serendipity stories is as long as the history of discovery.
Reading this gave me an “Aha!” moment of my own. When I mentally review my year’s work with librarians across a five state region I am struck by the notion that serendipity can be the happy byproduct of great law librarianship. And I have discovered that I am not alone in this observation. John Seeley Brown says “Librarians are really good at doing three things: nurturing scholarship, nurturing community and amplifying serendipity.”
Amplifying serendipity definitely describes the efforts of what I have seen in many law libraries this year. One of my colleagues on the Librarian Relations team, Michael Saint-Onge has a favorite observation: In a world of specialists, law librarians are the last generalists. I agree. What other profession’s goal is to gather related information together and be at the ready to access it from many different points in order to answer a question that they may or may not know anything about? Law librarians explore new technology, build collections and sit at reference desks daily prepared to answer questions on subjects and areas of law they may not have more than a passing knowledge. Serendipity is bound to play a role in linking together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion.
And the advent of digital libraries is truly exciting. No longer limited to a space or to physical objects like books and journals, law librarians can amplify the opportunity for serendipity to occur any time and any place a person has a network connection. Non-legal resources and current awareness stories can spark an idea, create stimulation and cross pollinization that can trigger active minds to make important connections from seemingly unrelated information. A new term for the process has been christened, “digitdipity.”
I believe that serendipity and the digital revolution taking place in the world is creating a greater need among lawyers for libraries and librarians. Given the wealth of new resources instantly available online, lawyers often miss crucial information by focusing on a small number of resources with which they are familiar. There is even a greater need to interact with their librarians on an ever-increasing basis to ensure that new resources are not missed. The importance of providing not only access to traditional sources of law in digital resources, but also more and more guidance beyond those resources, is required so that attorneys can make the connections needed in their information searches. A heightened emphasis on the role of librarians can increase instances of serendipity for the attorneys they serve.
So as you forge ahead in this year and the next, building portals, managing knowledge, addressing the current awareness needs of your firm and exploring competitive intelligence along with managing traditional legal resources, remember the words of Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Your efforts help prepare the minds of the attorneys and can ultimately give your firm a winning edge in an increasingly competitive environment. When you encourage an organization to foster intellectual connections that were previously unimaginable, great innovations occur that can make a difference for your clients and ultimately society. I believe serendipity is not a luxury but rather a necessity to encourage growth, accomplishment and the “Aha!” moments that change precedents or even the course of history.
So this holiday season, I wish you all Merry Serendipity and a wonderful New Year!
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