The Serendipitous Browser

When you hear the term “browser” you immediately think of a software application for retrieving information resources on the web. The following piece (Fiat Lux, Spring 2010, p. 13) on History of Art Professor Todd Olson provides a different, perhaps more literal take on the word browser, that is, a person who physically visits the book stacks to browse the shelves!  A novel idea and one that can be quite effective … read on!  –Kathryn Wayne

Serendipity in the Stacks

A testimonial to the joys of browsing the Library’s shelves, from associate professor of European art Todd Olson. The fundraising campaign for the library’s collections will ensure that the joys of discoveries like Dr. Olson’s will continue for generations into the future.

“As an undergraduate in the late seventies, I had access to the old Doe core stacks and my feet were my search engine, moving liberally through the Library of Congress system, refining my search through the ND500s, making forays into the Bs on the top floor, hesitating and pulling Ps. Other letters provided exploration into (then) uncharted fields of visual culture (early twentieth century French etiquette books, medical forensics, penal photography and Bertillon’s classificatory systems) now largely stored at the Northern Regional Library Facility.

One day I found the 1630 edition of Bosio’s Roma Sotteranea. Somehow the rare book had slipped away from the Bancroft and there was this beautiful leather spine. I was able to bring it home. I cared for it for some time. Some twenty years later, traces of the book found its way into my first book. My second book in progress has its author as one of my actors. As a faculty member, my first library funds were used to buy the facsimile, so my students could find it on the shelf.

I still rely on scanning spines in the stacks; a festschrift or collection of essays can fall off the screen of the most able web searcher. Serendipity and material objects are central to an art historian’s activity, whether books or other visual artifacts. This knowledge should be imparted to students: physical not electronic contiguity, collections not resources.”

Todd P. Olson earned his B.A. and M.A. from UC Berkeley, and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Author of Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism and the Politics of Style, he is currently writing a book entitled Caravaggio’s Pitiful Relics: Painting History after Iconoclasm.

Professor Todd P. Olson

Professor Todd P. Olson