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  • Alex Cates

The Physical-Digital Bookcase



Growing up, whenever I needed a new book, I would go through the bookshelves in my house. Both my parents were avid readers, with my mom’s taste in mystery novels resonating with me in particular. She and I share a soft spot for the prolific mystery writers, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, I also read Robert Ludlum and Michael Crichton. These aren't necessarily the highest levels of literature, but they were entertaining and available.


When I left for college, all of our dorm room desks had a shelf that was clearly meant for books. And along with the prerequisite textbooks, I always had a few books for fun among them. Whenever friends would come over or I would go to someone else’s room, we would always peruse the bookshelf. It was a conversation starter. It created common ground between books that we had both read and books we wanted to read.


I still enjoy perusing other people’s bookshelves and connecting over books. But I now have a problem that I did not have when I was younger, that the way we consume books has changed.


With the rise of technology has come a rise in different ways to consume books. I am thinking about e-books, but also audiobooks. Growing up, ebooks were just starting out and audiobooks were those massive collections of CDs or cassettes. Now, these digital forms of books are readily available. A few taps on my phone and I can check out an ebook or audiobook from the library and download them straight to my phone or e-reader. I find myself increasingly consuming books through these digital means. And this creates a problem, I am no longer stocking a physical bookshelf.


I do still read physical books too. But even then, I am increasingly checking these books out of my local library (both to save money and to support the library). These also do not leave me with a physical book to put on a shelf. They don’t allow me to peruse what I have read, to be reminded of different authors or lessons that I had forgotten. I track my books through GoodReads, which is great for me and I can reference when talking with someone about books or when I get asked for a recommendation, but it's more of a reference point within a conversation than a starting point for the conversation. The lack of a physical location makes it hard for a conversation about a book to naturally arise. It also means I cant be reminded of books in the same way I would a bookcase, like seeing an old friend.


So that inspired the idea of could you have a physical-digital bookcase?


A physical-digital bookcase would be a physical display of the books I have read. It would be displayed in a physical location that would catch your eye and allow for natural perusal. But it would also be digital, allowing me to download an image of the cover of the book to display (don’t need the physical book). A digital format also makes it easy to add in my own review and book descriptions. It also makes it easier to maintain, adding a new book would be simply downloading the appropriate image/information.

The design I ended up settling on is 4 small tablet screens, framed and hung on the wall (as shown in the header image). Each tablet displays a slideshow of book covers. As a tablet, each screen allows for users to interact with it, swiping to progress through the slideshow, tapping the book to read the description, and access GoodReads ratings (shown on the right).


Each tablet has its own set of books and images, which I have roughly grouped into some form of genres (a lot harder to do with only 4 “shelves”).


In the end, I am happy with this design. It accomplishes what I wanted from the outset. And while there is still room for improvement, particularly in the aesthetics, I think this concept has a lot of possibilities. Could you do something similar with movies? Replacing perusing someone's DVD collection with a slideshow of movie posters that can play the movie’s trailer upon request? What about music? A slideshow of album covers with the ability to play the album (linked to Spotify or something?


As our lives consistently transition to online first, I think the ability to have physical representations of our digital lives is important. The serendipity of seeing a book you love on someone’s shelf is a unique experience that I hope we don’t lose with time. The physical-digital bookshelf is a first attempt to prevent this.


If you are interested in building your own physical-digital bookcase, let me know, I am happy to share the code and parts. I may make future posts detailing the build.


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