The Discovery and Evaluation of Serendipitous Information Encountering in CLARIAH’s Media Suite

Sabrina Sauer, University of Groningen

In 2022, three researchers from the Media Studies department at the University of Groningen (RUG) completed three Teaching Fellowships - grouped together under the name “Suite Discoveries” investigating how the CLARIAH Media Suite can be integrated into teaching at both the Bachelor as well as the Master level. One of the Teaching Fellowships, DISCERN, focused on the ways in which the Media Suite allows serendipitous information encountering; those moments when something unforeseen yet unexpectedly useful is found. Students were trained to use the Media Suite, design exploratory search tasks, engage in tool criticism and engage in user studies with peers.

The premise of DISCERN is that Digital tools shape Digital Humanities’ research practices, including habits of searching for and evaluating source materials, and ultimately, the discovery of new ideas and theories. Serendipity, seen as the unexpected yet fruitful encountering of information, plays a large role in scientific processes of discovery (Copeland, 2019). Research into serendipitous information encountering has focused on the role of user engagement (O’Brien & Toms, 2008, O’Brien, 2018) and usability (Buchanan et al, 2020) to explain how serendipity can be supported in online environments. Other studies underline serendipity’s role in narrative development processes in print media journalism (Bird-Meyer et al, 2019) and television production practices (Sauer, 2017) and frame serendipity not as the outcome of information encountering, but rather as part of an ongoing research process (McCay-Peet & Toms, 2010).

The CLARIAH Media Suite offers (digital) humanities researchers the possibility to search, explore, and encounter sources using different digital tools. Users can furthermore annotate, save and export search results to their own Workspace. This project sought to teach Bachelor (BA) and Master (MA) students of the University of Groningen (RUG)’s Digital Humanities programmes how the Media Suite affords serendipitous information encountering, and what this means in terms of how the Media Suite supports new research discoveries. Learning about how the Media Suite affords serendipitous information encountering is important to Digital Humanities students on three levels: (1) Theoretically, it teaches them to actively reflect on changing research habits – including changing ideas about what serendipitous information encounters mean in a digital environment - as digital research possibilities change; (2) Analytically, studying how research practices are shaped by tools like the Media Suite allows students to become more versed in specific research practices, such as mapping research journeys through methods of personal research diaries, development of exploratory search tasks as well as tool criticism, and; (3) Practically, it supports their development into independent researchers proficient in doing hands-on user research.

This project takes a socio-material perspective (Orlikowski, 2007) to teach students about what serendipitous information encountering within digital infrastructures like the Media Suite tells us about contemporary digital (re)search practices. This means that use of the Media Suite cannot be understood without taking the user context into account; the social and material mutually inform the research process. Consistent with the view that serendipitous information encountering and discovery are processes, the project’s implicit question is, how does the Media Suite facilitate this socio-material, serendipitous, discovery process?

In line with conclusions drawn from recent studies into serendipitous information encountering in digital archives (Ezell & Rosenbloom, 2021), and based on the insights of Sauer & Hagedoorn’s previous CLARIAH pilot project into how the Media Suite’s Explore tool affords unexpected insights by means of exploratory search and the Explore tool (Hagedoorn & Sauer, 2018), this Teaching Fellowship provides (digital) humanities students with an educational package to answer the main research questions: How does CLARIAH’s Media Suite facilitate serendipitous information encountering? Related sub-questions are: What methods can one use to map serendipitous information encountering when researching a digital tool such as CLARIAH’s Media Suite? And, specifically related to the to-be developed teaching materials: What do our mapped research journeys with CLARIAH’s Media Suite tell us about contemporary digital research practices?

The Teaching Fellowship insights The focus of the Teaching Fellowship was on training Bachelor and Master students of the University of Groningen’s Digital Humanities minor and master programmes in the assessment and evaluation of serendipitous information encountering by focusing specifically on (digital) humanities students’ interaction with CLARIAH’s Media Suite. Methodologically, students were taught how to use and develop exploratory search tasks, research diaries, and videoed search journeys as part of their own user studies. Teaching efforts led to student insights into how digital tools such as the Media Suite shape search and discovery processes within the (digital) humanities. Furthermore, the Fellowship developed teaching materials to allow students to practice doing user studies and tool criticism to map serendipitous information encountering of peers (students of other humanities programmes within the University of Groningen). Deliverables include teaching materials, student reports and videos of use cases, and a list of user requirements based on the completed user studies.

As part of this Fellowship numerous teaching modules were developed to give students insight into what it means to make accidental, serendipitous discoveries within a digital research environment like the Media Suite. On the one hand, finding something serendipitously depends on the kind of queries that are developed. On the other hand, understanding how something may be perceived as serendipitous also requires researching the technical contexts (using tool criticism methods) and stepping into the shoes of your users.

That is why students were encouraged to explore the technical constraints and affordances of the Media Suite and in addition to this, do actual user research. First students were given a week to explore the Media Suite by themselves, guided by lectures, an initial exploratory search task (“You’ve been given an assignment in class on racial profiling, and are expected to write a paper on it. You decide to begin by trying to understand what racial profiling is, and explore and examine the issues, organisations and laws concerning it.”) and a tool criticism template. Secondly, the Master students were expected to devise their own exploratory search tasks, also based on an analysis of their own screen recordings of their own search practices in the Media Suite, and engage peers in a user study. These user studies consisted of 15 minute think aloud protocols with Master students from a different discipline: the master students of the Digital Humanities programme studied how Media Studies master students worked with the Media Suite, based on their own instructions with this tool set. In contrast, the Bachelor students were invited to explore the Media Suite in a “creative fashion”: they were asked to develop memes with materials that they encountered in the Open Images collection and then interview each other about their search and creative process.

Students of the MA course shared their insights about serendipitous information encountering during the “Suite Discoveries” final symposium, organised online in Gathertown on the 31s of January 2022. There, in the “Tools & Methods” room, students gave brief poster presentations about what they learned from using the Media Suite as part of their understanding of what it means to find materials serendipitously.

One of the first insights of this Teaching Fellowship in terms of serendipitous information encountering was that students were very surprised by the search tactics and strategies of their peers. They assumed that the users would mostly search like they themselves would. The Digital Humanities students readily observed how they had applied their own “I-methodology” in action. Similarities in search behaviour across students were observed in terms of the use that users made of Boolean search operators.

A second insight was some of the factors that students experienced as constraining, such as a language barrier (most of the materials that are accessible via the Media Suite are in Dutch) and because of a steep learning curve in terms of using meta data, contributed to serendipitous information encounters. Users encountered materials that they had not expected to find, which led them to another path of searching. For example, one student had been looking for materials on urban gentrification and found out that in order to renew cities demolished old building in “creative ways” (i.e. setting fire to buildings instead of using a wrecking ball).

A third insight was that keywords are subject to historical contextualisation: some words such as “gentrification” are not commonly found as associated with materials in the Media Suite. Student had to find “work arounds” to find materials that did show them urban renewal materials (in this case, the student used “demolishing” as a keyword to find materials).

A fourth insight was that “tool abandonment” also occurred regularly; it seemed that student had less patience than what was expected; oftentimes facets were not used, instead using new keywords to see if that would generate a useful insight.

The CLARIAH Media Suite helped students better understand how tools can frame and facilitate unexpected discoveries, and how serendipitous information encountering is not something that happens accidentally, bus also depends on how experienced a user is in “playing” with particular tools.


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