Passionately curious: the role of the library in serendipitous discovery  

Rachel Browning

Choosing a different route through the library, I spotted a book cover with a photograph of a man dressed like satyr.  A closer look showed me that it was a book called Nightflowers: from avante drag to extreme haute-couture which contains photographs of drag queens and cabaret performers It’s very easy to get distracted on a walk through the library!  

And of course it isn’t just books. If you open the blue metal map cabinets, you can enter the multi-coloured world of geological maps. You will see the dark green gabbro rocks of the Lizard and encounter the words oolitic and mica-schist. If you flick through the vinyl and CDs you could end up listening to chants from Kurdistan or hearing the sheep bells of Sardinia. Walking into the reading room, you might end up flicking through Film Fun from 1943 with Laurel and Hardy on the cover. Or if you unwind one of the rolling stack shelves you could be reading how ‘Gloves are gay again’ in the July 1937 issue of Vogue.   

In contrast to browsing the shelves, searching through the online resources can feel very different. Using search filters can cut down on browsing. However, the range of material now available presents wonderful opportunities, and a willingness to delve into these resources with a handful of keywords can result in some quirky findings.  A search in the Gale NewsVault for example, lead me to an article from 1827, reporting mermaids off the coast of Cornwall, and a report of a parrot in the Seven Stars pub in Penryn in 1960, who calls time in Paraguayan guarani. Both found without moving from my desk. 

Any of these discoveries could ignite a new area of research, or might provide the missing connection that solves a problem. However, if you only use ‘your’ section of the shelves or stick to the same database, what might you be missing out on? Next time you are in the Library, maybe take a different route, or take ten minutes out to try out some of the online material.  


'Language Trouble'. 1960. Daily Mail Available at: [Accessed 19870th]. 

Film Fun Annual 1943. 1943. London: Fleetway Publications Ltd. 

'Gloves are gay again '. 1937. Vogue, 90, 68. 

'Mermaids on the Coast of Cornwall'. 1827. Morning Post Available at: [Accessed 17648th]. 

FELD, Steven. Time of bells. s.l.: VoxLox. 

FROST, Damien. 2016. Night Flowers: From Avant-Drag to Extreme Haute Couture. London: Merrell. 

Groupe Koma Zozan. 1983. Chants et musiques du Kurdistan. France: Arion. 


Picture Credit