Thinking With Bookshelves

I sat down to write a blog post (not this one) and thought, “I remember reading about [subject of the post] in a Kindle book. Now, which book was that?…” Alas, I couldn’t remember the name of the book or who wrote it.

Now, if this were to happen with a physical book, I’d have other factors I could use to aid recall. I’d have a sense of where the book is in my bookshelves. I keep books organized by subject (more or less), and I know what subject I’m looking for. So I can go to the part of the bookshelf where I keep books on this subject, and look for it. The physical attributes of the artifact help in this: I know whether the book in question was big or small, whether it was a hardcover or paperback, the color of its spine, etc.

I can’t do any of this with ebooks, of course. When I open the Kindle app on my Mac, I see a list of the ebooks I’ve bought from Amazon over the years (and samples I’ve checked out.) The Kindle app lets me see this list sorted by three criteria: title, author, and recency of purchase. I can also choose to look at the books as a list or as a grid of cover images. The “recency” sort may help, as may the cover images. But as an aid in recall, browsing this information environment is a poorer experience than browsing my physical bookshelves.

Kindle on my Mac

To be fair: ebooks have features like full-text search and library portability that physical books can’t accommodate. The point is not to say one is decidedly better than the other. Instead, the point is to say my physical bookshelves and the books they contain are cognitive artifacts — and it’s not just because the books contain information. Their physical characteristics (including their location in space) are also an important part of my thinking apparatus. Now, the organization scheme of my library doesn’t scale: it makes sense to me, but it won’t serve the same purpose for you. That said, it extends my cognitive abilities in important ways. I’m sure you have similar experiences in your physical spaces.

While information environments afford incredible power — computers are more than bicycles for the mind — in some ways, they are poorer than physical environments as spaces for thinking. This prompts the question: How can we create information environments that extend our cognitive abilities with similar flexibility and richness to what we experience in physical environments?