The Bookcase as World’s Most Underrated UI
Why Do Print Books Dominate Publishing, while Ebooks Continue to Slide? It’s Less about Books and More about Their Amazing User Interface
“You’ll find it on in the corner, top shelf, right side. It’s green.” My eldest son needed a copy of Aesop for a school project. Out of the two thousand or so volumes in the study, I knew pretty much where it was. Based on those few identifiers he found it in seconds and got to work. Isn’t that remarkable?
We’re so enamored of digital technology we often presume its superiority; worse, we sometimes forget its alternatives even qualify as technologies. The humble plow, screw, spring, stirrup, and bookcase are victims of their own success and subsequent ubiquity. They’re so utterly common we fail to recognize how amazing they are.
Ebooks’ Empty Threat
When ebook sales took off more than a decade ago now, following the launch of Amazon’s Kindle, prophets warned of the imminent demise of print. There were a hundred reasons digital was supposedly superior: cost, distribution, storage, and so on. Electronic formats and distribution had already upended the news and music businesses. It seemed inevitable that they would disrupt, if not destroy, the dusty, old book business too.
But the prophets were wrong. All these years later ebooks account for less than a tenth of all U.S. book sales, according to a recent report of the Association of American Publishers. Total book sales hit almost $30 billion in 2021, up more than 12 percent from the prior year. Meanwhile, ebooks inched down 5 percent from 2020, contributing just $1.97 billion toward the total.
Best-case scenario for ebooks? They serve as an inexpensive compliment to physical books and a means to improve information access when and where needed—a view evident around the world.
That should lead us to ask a question: How does a technology as fusty as the printed book continue to thrive against digital competition? Printed books possess several inherent qualities that go some way toward explaining their ongoing success. And there are external, cultural reasons too. But to me the best answer is the most underrated user interface ever devised: the lowly bookcase.
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What Bookcases Do Better
Digital promises instant retrieval. But it never quite delivers. Searching for a book in a digital environment means scrolling through two-dimensional, sometimes black-and-white thumbnail book covers in hopes of spotting the right title, or worse, scanning line after line of identical-looking, text-only search results.
Book app UIs have improved over the years, but they’re still pretty poor compared to the common bookcase. My bookcases at home, for instance, allow me to display a couple thousand titles at once. They’re organized to my taste, and I can find almost anything in seconds.
Spatial information, color, and design all factor into the search results. When I walk in my study, I know history and period literature is on the left, chronologically arranged, more or less. Business books are straight ahead, arranged by subject. Psychology and art are ahead to the left, philosophy ahead to the right.
When looking for a subject or theme, I can quickly spot a particular book I think will help. By grabbing a few of its neighbors I can find another angle or two. And it’s all visually prompted and tactilely supported, instead of manually keyed and electronically served. I can view the text and design data of a dozen book spines at once, run my finger along their edges and pull this one or that.
Browsing offers additional benefits. I often want one book in particular but realize a moment into scanning the shelves that another book will serve me better. The bookcase offers serendipity in a way digital UIs haven’t yet replicated or surpassed. That’s also true for size. My bookcases run floor to ceiling, wall to wall, on two sides of my study. No phone or desktop can match that display.
The all-at-once nature of the display means my bookcases communicate something about me and my interests to friends and visitors and even myself. Bookcases store books and shape selves. Not so with one’s tablet, phone, or e-reader, which conceal their dozens, hundreds, or thousands of titles whether held aloft or stuffed in a bag.
Superior Tech Wins
Ikea has sold over a hundred and twenty million units of its popular Billy bookcase, and to me it’s no wonder. Ebooks have much to recommend them, and I bear them no ill. I possess hundreds, purchased or downloaded for one reason or another. Usually, they supplement my printed collection. Sometimes I even read them.
But until a digital environment can create a UI that beats the bookcase, I can’t imagine a substantial shift in my buying and reading behavior. And apparently, neither can the rest of us.
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