I love libraries. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated and comforted by libraries, by the quiet mazes of shelf and stack and page and paragraph.
As a toddler I would sit for hours, reading or pretending to read, counting shelves and ceiling tiles, perfectly content. People would ask my mother for her secret. She claimed, and still claims, that it was all me. I was born bookish.
As an adult, I visit libraries whenever I travel. I study the differences and similarities between them, like a connoisseur with a mouthful of wine. Central Library in Portland has an early-modern charm, with its broad atrium and grand staircases. Ernie Pyle Library in Albuquerque occupies the actual house that Ernie Pyle built, a tiny ranch-style affair with books crammed into every corner and closet. The library in Boise has giant letters on the side of the building reading “LIBRARY!”. Yes, the exclamation point is official.
So I was delighted to find “ Libby “, the new library app from Overdrive. Overdrive is the system used by most libraries in the US to manage ebooks and audiobooks. This is a matter of contingency, I think: there was a scuffle in the early 21C around DRM and licensing, and Overdrive came out on top by historical accident. It definitely wasn’t on the strength of their software. All the Overdrive apps I’ve used in the last ten years have been bloated, stodgy, dense with the feeling of bureaucracy. Libby changes that.
I’m not trying to sell you on an app here. I’m talking about design. The older versions of Overdrive used the same design metaphor as most enterprise software: here you are at a desk, with lots of objects and menus arranged before you. Libby is different. Despite the anthropomorphized chattiness of the “Libby” character, the app doesn’t actually try to emulate a human librarian (thank the gods). Instead, it feels analog. It feels… physical.
In audiobook mode, it’s like an old Walkman. It has tactile controls, dials and sliders and buttons that only do one thing but do it well. The sleep-mode control, for instance, is a little crescent moon at the top of the screen that you pull downward on. A short slide and it will stop talking after 15 minutes, a longer one and you’ve got an hour before bedtime. It’s intuitive.
In the other app I use for podcasts, that same action requires pressing a button to open a hovering menu with a number-entry form, where I either have to type “15” or click on tiny little up/down arrows until I get there. Only then can I click “OK”, crawl into bed, and lie wide awake for an hour because that much phone use excited my dopamine system. If I want to get another little dribble of audio, I have to do the same process all over again.
Libby is an example of calm technology . It creates a sense of space, of time to think and make good choices. It doesn’t place itself at center stage, but rather retreats into the periphery.
For another example, look at the difference between these three “news” websites:
The Wall Street Journal](https://www.wsj.com/)
Note: if you use an adblocker, try turning it off for these pages. If you don’t use an adblocker, seriously, what? Get one right now at https://www.ublock.org/ and enter a world of peace like you never imagined.
This is the first slice of the first page that I get on loading each of those pages this morning. In a physical newspaper, this would be “above the fold”: the first half of page one, the part that catches your eye when walking past the metal box on the street corner.
I’ve come to read the news. How do these websites guide me to that experience? Let’s compare:
The WSJ has no article above the fold ! It’s literally just a masthead and some ads. They’ve put a barricade between me and the news I came for.
Buzzfeed at least bothers to put one (1) article above the fold. They have it twice, because the front-page story is also the top story in the right sidebar. Everything else there, though? It’s all dark patterns, clickbait and traps and sheer nonsense. Look at the masthead! “News, Videos, Quizzes, Tasty”?! Scrolling down is even worse – an endless stream of listicles, quizzes, and advertisements indistinguishable from one another. Instead of a barricade, they’ve built a labyrinth of traps and decoys to lead me astray.
And then there’s The Outline . Thirteen words total above the fold, and that’s if you count the dateline and the masthead and the two words half-showing at the bottom. Thirteen. The Journal has more than that in its first banner ad!
It’s like walking out of a musty room into fresh spring air, or the sudden end of a noise I hadn’t even realized I was hearing. A weight is lifted from my chest, and I’m ready to actually read something. Not a barricade or a maze, it’s a broad atrium with a grand staircase and a sign saying “This way to The News!”.
Today’s technology landscape is incredibly cluttered with spam, bogons, advertisements and trolls. Every time I venture onto the internet I have to prepare myself. It feels like a New York subway platform: loud, trashy, crowded with hustlers and creeps and stained with centuries of piss and used gum. I still love it, of course, just like I love the subway. But I don’t want to live on the platform. I want to take the subway somewhere nice and peaceful.
Like a library, for instance.
Our technological choices will echo down through generations. What did the designers think when building those subways? How did they imagine they would be used? What about the library, who designed that, and for what? They’re long dead, surely. But their decisions live on.
We’re at a turning point now, as the advertising model begins to collapse, as machine learning and decentralized computing offer the prospect of a Web 3.0. If we want to undo the mistakes of the last two decades, we need to start right now.
We can create spaces in the digital realm that fulfill us in the way great architecture fulfills the body and great literature fulfills the soul. We can be calm, informed, empowered cyborgs. We can build a library the size of a planet. But we have to make the choice.
For more reading on the future of design, check out these wonderful, breathable sites:
As always, thanks for reading.
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