There are rumors that the printed book is an endangered species.
This kind of book, we’re told, is outdated. Archaic. The quaint stuff of collectors and historians. Practically obsolete. To hear technocrats explain the story of the printed volume, we get a rather linear narrative. In this accounting, humanity’s libraries might have started with papyrus scrolls and cuneiform tablets, but since then, we have filled shelves with books, thanks to the advent of the printing press–with book technology culminating in the arrival of e-books. This simplistic trajectory celebrates technology’s successful elimination of the material book-as-object. In this future bookscape, with digital books on digital shelves, physical, tangible bookshelves quietly bide their time until their ultimate extinction–the dodo birds of furniture, quaggas eliminated from an ecosystem that can no longer support them. The future, we’re led to conclude, simply does not have a place for bookshelves because we’ve efficaciously eliminated the objects that go on them.
But reports of the printed book’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Many recent surveys tell us that printed books, and, consequently, the physical bookshelves to put those books on, are artifacts well-ensconced in modern culture. So where does this anxiety about book and bookshelf extinction come from? And why?
The futures we give ourselves are dark dystopias where computers outweigh conscience and machines replace man.
Take a step back and consider the genres we use to imagine our futures. If our science fiction is any indication, the futures we see are, by and large, terrifyingly nihilistic. The futures we give ourselves are dark dystopias where computers outweigh conscience and machines replace man. In these scenarios, any object that isn’t shiny and hi-tech is used as a MacGuffin to cue the audience to some particular point in Earth’s history. These futures rarely have printed books, let alone bookshelves, in it. In some science fiction cultures, like Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem and Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, books are actually forbidden, making any kind of bookshelf completely irrelevant. Even the hopelessly naïve utopia of Star Trek’s twenty-fourth century does not sport bookshelves in their starships–they’ve replaced printed books with digital ones on tablets.
In other words, in just about every fictional imagined future we tell ourselves, we write bookshelves out of the narrative. It’s no wonder that we’re convinced that they don’t have a place. For decades before the iPad and Kindle, we had Captain Picard and Lieutenant Riker wandering around the Enterprise with books on tablets. It’s as if we give our fictional futures predictive power to the point where they become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The relationship between book and shelf is complicated and has evolved many times throughout the history of both objects. Today, we think about a bookshelf as simply a place to store printed volumes and occasional tchotchkes. But these expectations about book on shelves–storing books along horizontal shelf-planes, arranging the books so the spines face out, being read left to right–are the results of thousands of decisions made over and over. As book technology changes–scrolls or printed volumes or even digital tablets–those changes dictate how we decide to store those books on shelves. Conversely, how we think books “ought” to go on their shelves influences how we think about and how we built those very shelves. Rather than thinking about books-on-bookshelves as having a completely linear trajectory–where one type of book technology neatly morphs into another–books and bookshelves are inexorably linked where their form and function are under constant negotiation.
These bookshelves are advertised to audiences as book containers that can be interspersed with a plethora of not-book items like stuffed animals, picture frames, and other curios.
The earliest bookshelves can be traced to the ancient kingdom of Ebla, in modern day Syria. Excavated between 1974-1975 by Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae, the team of archaeologists recovered 1800 complete cuneiform tablets and 4700 fragments that date to circa 2500 BCE. These texts were found in situ on collapsed shelves in the Ebla palace archives. Reconstructions of the bookshelves that would have housed Ebla’s tablets show that these shelves neatly followed the interior perimeter of the archives room and that the shelves were deep with enough space to easily access the clay tablets. Archaeologists even found clay tags that described what tablets and subjects would have been on each shelf, much like tags with call numbers at the ends of our modern libraries. Medieval chained bookshelves insured that books–expensive, important items in these centuries-old libraries–were tethered to their shelves to avoid being purloined. If the chain was insufficient to keep the books in their library spots, some medieval scribes relied on curses and verses scribbled at the beginning of medieval tomes, appealing to readers’ better nature or even their fear of God. (“This book, o Christ, in praise of thee/Lies finished for all to see./Good Benedictine, to spare my health,/Put back this book upon its shelf;/And you will give me recompense/If you deem it worthy of your intelligence,” reads one book curse, neatly penned in the beginning of a medieval tract.) Today’s IKEA book storage systems give us shelves that are affordable, easily constructed–more or less–and are shelves used to house lightweight books. These bookshelves are advertised to audiences as book containers that can be interspersed with a plethora of not-book items like stuffed animals, picture frames, and other curios.
Digital books on digital shelves? Are they the deus ex machina in bookshelf history that renders physical books and material shelves obsolete? If the purpose of the book is to function as a tool to simply deliver information, then sure, the physical properties of the information delivery system don’t matter to in discussions of corporeal bookshelves. But if we understand books to be more than just the sum of the information within them, then their shelves would reflect that as well. Even putting digital books on digital shelves invokes this millennia-long relationship–and many digital shelves do their best to mimic “real” ones, putting books on their bookshelves, right down to the skeuomorphism of byte-rendered faux woodgrain.
Because a bookshelf depends on its cultural context, there isn’t any specific shelf that will be perfectly situated to every bookshelf need.
All bookshelves, including digital ones, are the results of design, aesthetic, and cultural tradeoffs. The history of the bookshelf shows how these factors are weighed–tradeoffs like security and accessibility, cataloging and storage, affordability and longevity. The construction of any bookshelf, really, comes down to how a shelf-builder balances the architectural demands with how culture writ large determined how books “ought” to go on it. Because a bookshelf depends on its cultural context, there isn’t any specific shelf that will be perfectly situated to every bookshelf need. When we conjure up a bookshelf-less future, it’s like we took the bad parts of bookshelf tradeoffs and coalesced them into our dystopian futures to “prove” that the book on the bookshelf has no place in centuries to come.
“The future is already here,” sci-fi writer William Gibson wryly noted, “it’s just not evenly distributed.” This couldn’t be more true than in how and why we appear to be so willing to write bookshelves out of our futures. If the history of bookshelf tells us anything, it’s that the bookshelf is malleable, constantly adapting, relentless relevant–meaning that the future, however it unfolds, will be full of books on bookshelves.
Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian in Austin, TX. She is the author of Bookshelf, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury Press, and the upcoming Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils with Viking. @LydiaPyne