Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Surprise Us: Why Randomness Deserves a Place in Every Library System

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Surprise Us: Why Randomness Deserves a Place in Every Library System

Article excerpt

I have long been a fan of the Random Article link in Wikipedia. In the left sidebar of the Wikipedia user interface, there's a link that loads an article randomly, selected on-the-fly from across Wikipedia. It is also possible to choose a random article from within certain categories, and developers can even integrate the random article function into their projects with a random article API call.

The Random Article link is fun because it offers a surprise. It could be just about any topic imaginable, such as the footballer Terry Kelly (captain of Derry City F.C. in 1985) or Higashikawa, a small town on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Those were the two that just came up for me, but take a moment to try it yourself. This unpredictability is a crucial component of the Wiki Game, a race to see who can get from Random Article A to Random Article B using only links within the articles themselves.

One particularly professional (and addictive) implementation of this game is at thewikigame .com, which has more than 22,000 Likes on Facebook and a constant bevy of players competing. The game is essentially a series of very short scavenger hunts across the universe of information, offering its players an expansive view of this universe. Many of us have fond childhood memories of browsing idly through an encyclopedia set (ours was Childcraft), stimulated by the vast expanse of knowledge at our fingertips. The Wiki Game is like that experience, transformed into a fun and easy game. If a simple Random Article link can result in such a novel experience, why aren't libraries and our technology partners more interested in randomness?

There's certainly a case to be made for a greater awareness of the role that randomness can play in our services and systems. In this brief article, I hope to persuade library information system developers to accommodate randomness, both in their user interfaces (with a link to a random item) and in their APIs and web services (with a random item function).

Most obviously, a "random item" link in every information system would serve a number of purposes. First and most simplistically, it would bring our systems just a bit closer to the user experience of one of the most popular websites ever. Libraries have invested millions of dollars over the last decade to make their systems more like Google, so why not introduce a minor tweak to make them more like Wikipedia?

A random item link provides a unique and surprising-and therefore fun--entry point into an information system. The iconic and simple search box will remain the standard entry point for most users. Browse indexes will always have a special place in the hearts of librarians, and highlighted content (items of the day/week, trending items, items related to current events, etc.) grants us some curatorial influence. But a random item link--by far the simplest and least obtrusive of these options to implement--provides an effortless way to jump straight into a database's content without the need to decide on a topic or consider keywords.

Instructional librarians sometimes demonstrate canned searches for different databases (Harry Potter and climate change, anyone?), while the more courageous among us take suggestions from students. Both strategies have their place. However, wouldn't the surprising and serendipitous nature of a random item link as a point of departure into a database sometimes earn the interest of students just as well as these two options, while providing an interesting challenge to the instructor? …

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