One Week | One Tool: Introducing Serendip-o-matic

Serendip-o-matic logo[ProfHacker interrupts our scheduled summer break for this special, breaking news! We'll be back in the full swing of things on Monday, August 12! --Ed.]

This past week, I was one of twelve participants in “One Week | One Tool” (OWOT), an Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The team first assembled on the evening of Sunday, 28 July. Our goal? Conceiving, designing, and delivering a digital humanities research tool by mid-afternoon on Friday, 2 August. After five days and nights (and early, early mornings) of hard work and intense collaboration, we made our deadline and launched Serendip-o-matic.

So what is Serendip-o-matic? It’s a way to explore massive online collections like the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, Flickr Commons, and Trove. This “serendipity engine” takes in any text — such as an article, song lyrics, or a bibliography — extracts key terms, and then uses those terms to search the linked massive collections and deliver items that are similar to those in the submitted text. What this means is that instead of doing a search with a simple text string, you can do a search with a huge collection of sources that you’ve already collected. In fact, you can connect the Serendip-o-matic up to your entire research Zotero library before running the search. (ProfHacker loves Zotero, as you can tell from our previous posts on the subject.) What this means is that your collection itself becomes your query.

The goal of Serendip-o-matic is to create opportunities for surprise—something akin to finding that unexpected book in the stacks or that item you didn’t know was in the archives. That serendipitous process can be useful to scholars, of course. They can submit their bibliographies to the serendipity engine to help enliven their current research or to get ideas for a new project. But this tool also has applications for other potential users. Students who are looking for inspiration can submit one source that they’ve already found in order to locate other, related primary source materials. Bloggers can put in the text of posts that they’re writing and find open access images to illustrate them. Librarians and museum professionals might discover a wide range of items from other institutions that are related to those in their collections and build bridges that make both collections more accessible.

Serendip-o-matic isn’t intended to be a comprehensive catalog of everything that could match your collection. It’s intentionally limited in the number of results it returns each time and there’s a bit of fuzziness built into the Magic Mustache™, which analyzes your collection and powers the machine’s pattern recognition. Again, this is all designed to provoke surprising discovery.

Serendip-o-matic is open to refinement and improvement. Since building something in a week means that there might be a few creaky functions in our Rube Goldberg machine, the OWOT team is in the process of continuing to refine Serendip-o-matic. In fact, the addition of Trove, the National Library of Australia’s digital collections, happened about 18 hours after the tool’s launch after Tim Sherratt—who had planned to be a participant in OWOT but was unable to attend at the last minute—provided additions to the codebase. Anyone who wishes to improve, expand, or extend Serendip-o-matic is free to do so. Everything we’ve done is open source and on GitHub, and we hope other individuals or institutions take the opportunity to contribute to machine’s future.

As much fun as Serendip-o-matic is, One Week | One Tool is as much about the process as the final product. If you’re interested in what and how we learned, many of the participants blogged throughout. I’d recommend reading these posts by Mia Ridge, Amrys Williams, Jack Dougherty, Amanda Visconti, and if you still need more after that point you can take a look at my own posts. What’s more, you can read some other, less biased coverage of the Institute and the Serendip-o-matic elsewhere on The Chronicle.

So go ahead. Feed something into the Serendip-o-matic, give it a whirl, and marvel at what you get back. Just remember: It’s not search, it’s serendipity.

The Serendip-o-matic mascot, the Serendhippo

Have you tried Serendip-o-matic? What feedback would you give the team about our machine? Let us know in the comments!

Edited to correct one typo and to include forgotten link to previous Zotero posts.

Lead image: Serendip-o-matic logo, created by Amy Papaelias. The Serendip-o-matic mascot, the Serendhippo was also created by Amy Papaelias.

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