I took my two boys to the library at least four days a week all summer for two reasons. First off, libraries have always been a magical place. A wealth of topics, time periods, and tales sit on shelves, waiting for you to pick them up and page through them. As a young boy, I read books and checked them out from my elementary school library, and also the public library. I credit those library experiences for fostering a lifelong passion for books. By second grade I knew how to navigate the library card catalog system to find books (Dewey Decimal System), and in college I worked as a librarian at my university's library (Library of Congress classification).
Another reason my sons and I went to the library every day was because libraries are changing, and will continue to change, over the coming years. Part of me has been afraid that within ten years (or sooner), the library my sons know (or could have known) might look radically different. Although the changes I allude to are not entirely due to economical reasons, money is one of the factors that will contribute to the changes. Many libraries are reducing hours, decommissioning books in the collection, and cutting back on new acquisitions in order to save money. And yet, new technologies, such as e-books, or ePubs as they're known in publishing circles, have become part of some library collections. With more people having access to e-readers and tablets, the demand for electronic books continues to grow. Libraries are hosting many digital titles, allowing patrons to check out books the same way they would with printed publications and books (pPubs).
All of these changes in the supply chain have affected the library itself, and architects such as Rem Koolhaas and the OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) have investigated new ways to think about the library. A library is not only a storage vessel to hold books, but also a space that expands, shifts, and compresses depending on how many or few books it takes on. Or what the people do within the space, whether reading or not. The end result of Koolhaas' research and work, the Seattle Central Library in Downtown Seattle, challenged the conventions so many of us have when we think about libraries.
The Seattle Library is a joy to navigate, and I encourage anybody who loves architecture and/or books to visit. The space is bathed in natural light, and splashes of saturated color surprise you at random turns, be it looking down to sit on a sofa or looking up to climb an escalator. And in terms of storage, the moveable shelving system makes collapsing a space or expanding it much easier. Anybody who has had to move an Ikea BILLY bookcase knows exactly what I mean. And as far back as 2004, its wi-fi service and beautifully lit scenery made anybody want to leave home to surf the web in the comfort of its large red sofas. That was long before Amazon's Kindle, Apple's iPad, and Barnes and Noble's Nook became household names, when few people saw the need to connect to wi-fi for checking out a book on their tablet. People saw the "electronic book" possibilities, or at least I did, and I longed for the chance to get my books downloaded onto one device. Today many libraries, including Seattle's, offer eBook checkout as a standard service for card-carrying members, with thousands of titles available for you to access on your tablet or e-reader.
Today, ePubs appeal to readers for two primary reasons. They cost less than most printed books, and take up far less space. Consider the college student, who has 10 different textbooks to carry: lugging around 10 pounds in books would require strength, as well as a book bag with strong stitching to help it last through a 16 week semester. ePubs offer the benefit of portability, and accessibility. Designer Joshua Mauldin of Invisible Interface has 150 digital books, and reads them on his iPad or iPhone. He sees plenty of advantages: "I get to take my entire library with me. I'm able to search through a book in an instant and find a relevant quote or pull some data whenever I'd like. It lets me take notes in the book and store them for later. I'm happy that I'm able to take those notes and they're always with me." That searching and note-taking ability is a valuable asset for those of us who use the book for not only reading, but also for journaling.
Generally speaking, designers care about the materiality of the things they use, whether its music packaging or the smell of a new magazine's printed page. Donovan Beery of eleven19 compares it to music media: "It's like the difference between vinyl and mp3s. With one, you have a product you feel an ownership of while holding. There is a connection and permanence to the object you just don't feel with the digital. But at the moment, I don't have any ebooks. I assume one day I will move over to some digital, or get a few ebooks, because if the content is good enough, I will be forced to consume it, and that may be the only way it is available." But there are just as many who have already begun to make a turn toward the digital, like Chanh Nguyen: "My electronic devices are always around me. It is easier for me to download a story and put it in my pocket, than carrying a book around. I think I may have accidentally sworn off printed books already." Although he didn't rid himself of printed books completely, Randy J. Hunt, Creative Director at Etsy, reduced his collection significantly: "A few years ago, I counted about 1200 books in my collections. Now it's down to less than 500. Many of those books I sold, donated, or gave to friends. On a few occasions I even threw a book away (gasp!). Hey, it went into the recycling bin at least." Today, he has approximately 70 books in digital form, and reads them on his iPad and iPhone, usually through Amazon Kindle.
Because most readers, be they designers or non-designers, will make the shift to digital books over the coming years, book designers will need to rethink how publications deliver the content. Already, digital magazines have incorporated sound and animation in their digital equivalents such as those in Apple's Newsstand, and short videos can accompany the stories too. Conde Nast has been doing this with its titles, and continues to deliver rich-media experiences for its subscribers. And now that Apple, who strives to give users the tools to not only digest but also create content, delivered its iBooks Author software this past winter, anybody can craft a Multi-Touch book and sell it through the iBook Store. Amazon provides its own Kindle Authoring program to promising authors, who want the chance to publish books on that platform.
No matter where you get your publications, be they a tablet, bookstore, or library, digital devices have given readers a valuable benefit: choice. Whether on an Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, Google Tablet, or Apple iPad, readers can get as many books as they want, and store them in one place to read anywhere they want. Would you want access to 150 of your books, all through your phone? Would you rather get them from your own bookshelf? Or the local library? Does it matter?
In 2004, Rem Koolhaas and the OMA proved that, yes, libraries matter but their form and function would need to change. Digital access points, be they on a Google Tablet, Kindle, Nook, or iPad, get us the books we want, when we want them, with access anywhere we want. For those of us making the leap to digital books, the library as a building may become one more place to simply download content. And our own device, be it a phone or tablet, may become what we call "our library."