Performing Discovery

A few months ago, one of my saved searches brought back a story about a so-called digital library in a subway station in Bucharest. It turned out the library was actually a large-scale advertisement for a mobile phone company and a publisher. The walls of a subway concourse were covered floor to ceiling, in trompe l'oeil style, with printed posters of books on shelves. It was called a "digital library" because some of the books had QR codes added to their spines; smartphone users could scan the codes and be linked to previews of the books.

After reading these details, I reflexively dismissed the whole thing as insufferably corny. The QR codes, books as decoration, the play for attention-grabbing dissonance... What's this? Shelves of books? In a metro station!?! It sounded like something we'd have snickered over in a college cultural studies course: books and libraries as simulacra for urban commuters.

At the same time, I couldn't shake the thought that if I were there in person I would enjoy the experience of standing before the fake shelves, looking at the spines of the fake books, and exploring the collection, such that it is. After all, there are actual books represented in this library; it's not purely decorative wallpaper styled as shelves of indeterminately "old" volumes (which, it turns out, is very much a thing). And, as fake libraries go, it's pretty big: you'd have to move your feet, wander around, and probably crane your neck in order to take it all in. As much as the premise made me cringe, I started to wonder if this might actually be a pleasant way to casually discover an ebook -- more pleasant than browsing the web site of an online bookseller or a library catalog.

Part of what is at work here, of course, is the comfort of the familiar. Bookshelves, printed covers, and labeled spines are themselves technologies that have won out, over time, as a means of balancing the form of certain media (books), physical space, and human scale. They are part of our cultural vernacular; we understand the way they work and know how to navigate them with an ease that makes the technology of it all seem invisible.

But there's something else happening, something other than the (fake) books and shelves. There is something about informationally-dense spaces, spaces of a certain scale, spaces you have to move your body through to discover, spaces where we can physically model and then perform the act of discovery. Even when the objects to be discovered have been flattened into wallpaper, these spaces engender ways of browsing that personal-scale electronic devices do not.

Consider the scale and metaphors of our most common ebrowsing devices: the personal computer (a single desktop); the tablet (a single book); smartphone (which, best I can tell, is the scale of a candy bar). Then consider the relative amount of content that we can view through these small screens. The effect is like wandering the stacks of your local research library while looking through a director's viewfinder.

There is a lot of work being done to create a new vernacular for browsing digitally, but we should remember -- with concern -- that so much of this work is bound inside of personal screens. These screens are spaces, certainly, but they are smaller than us. They are fixed frames; we move and manipulate an impossibly large amount of information inside of them. Even when this work is moved to larger touch screens, users most often stand before a scaled-up version of some personal screen metaphor instead of performing discovery in spaces to be moved through.

We're nowhere near achieving the balance that our older information technologies worked out to address browsing. Open library stacks remain an amazing discovery tool for the things we can place on them. But replicating bookshelves virtually is not the solution for ebrowsing. It doesn't account for the fascinating ways that digital objects can be ordered, re-ordered, mapped, networked, scaled, layered, annotated, and otherwise visualized. In library buildings we construct quiet study spaces, coffee shops, group meeting rooms, media labs, maker spaces -- why not dedicated, purpose-built electronic browsing spaces where you can discover resources in ways that would be impossible on the screen of your laptop, tablet, or phone?

Where can we look for pointers? Artists have been working on immersive, interactive, digitally-based spaces for a long time. Childrens museums, science museums, and theme parks are especially good at creating exploratory, playful spaces for discovery. Cultural heritage museums are working on tools so that interactive discovery might include taking what you find away with you.

We've been quick to be convinced that new media are immaterial (though this has been convincingly repudiated); in doing so we've also been far too quick to toss out physical space as a means to discover them. Libraries and archives should be doing more important work to make ebrowsing a place.