Treasures of the Inforum: On Browsing

By Stephanie Abba

The title of this column is technically a lie – this isn’t officially a treasure of the Inforum anymore, since it’s been moved to Downsview, but it is a part of the Inforum’s collection. On Browsing: The Use of Search Theory in the Search for Information sounds dry, but this 35-page photocopied booklet is anything but!

I found this treasure while writing a paper on browsing behaviour for The Future of the Book in the Fall 2016 term. I was so delighted with its content that I wandered around the Inforum sharing it with anybody who would listen. (I later learned that the author, Philip M. Morse, was a pioneer of operations research, which applies systematic analytic techniques to improve decision-making. (1))

Morse wrote this report while at M.I.T. (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1970 – while under contract to the U.S. Army Research Office – about how World War II anti-submarine search theory can be applied to book browsing. The author used probability theory and geometry as applied to the chance of success in finding a specific thing in a given area, and the relationship of search rate and search coverage. There are lots of charts and graphs that I don’t pretend to understand, but the prose is actually quite easy to parse and includes gems like “[b]rowsing may be defined as a search, hopefully serendipitous.” (2)

I actually disagree with what he’s saying since I don’t think he’s talking about browsing, but about searching. Finding an enemy submarine in a particular quadrant of the ocean and blowing it up is more akin to having a call number and searching for (or, targeting) that specific book to get it off the shelf. Whereas when you’re browsing, or at least when I’m browsing, I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it. There’s no particular target I could have been aiming for – maybe it’s a submarine, but maybe it’s a dolphin, or a kraken, or a boy and a tiger in a boat (3), so how are we able to measure the success of my expedition?

This book tickles me, if only because I never thought I’d be thinking about comparing book browsing to World War II anti-submarine search theory. If you think it might tickle you as well, you can order up this delightful work from Downsview through the UTL catalogue at

P.S. Morse also wrote a book called Library Effectiveness: A Systems Approach in 1968, which the Inforum holds. I haven’t read it, but if you do, please tell me about it!


  1. “Home,” Canadian Operational Research Society/Société canadienne de recherche opérationnelle, accessed February 6, 2017,
  2. Philip M. Morse, On Browsing: The Use of Search Theory in the Search for Information (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1970), 1.
  3. Knopf Canada edition of Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

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