Monday, April 07, 2008

Books or screens: why not both?

The rise of the digital age has been hailed as the death knell for books. But books don’t seem to want to go away that easily, do they? The idea that "book people" and "media people" are inherently different seems embedded in our collective consciousness, yet in the real worlds of commerce and letters, the business of books is closely tied to the business of digital media, as a recent article from ISMI reminds us..

Some people won’t date folks who don’t share their literary tastes. With two rooms of overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, I can relate: everyone in my house is a reader. But we’re also pretty heavy on the digital side, too, with daily use of computers, digital cameras, and mobile devices. The angry war between print and screen is not what it’s cracked up to be, and Borders is counting on that with the introduction of its new media blitz stores that offer genealogy services, movie and music downloading, audible books, and even a publish-your-own option, all topped with a generous helping of well trained staff to help you navigate the digital toys.

Borders was one of the few early mega bookstores to break through my hatred of the breed. I first discovered them around ten years ago while visiting family, on a day when my older relatives probably needed a break from the Parent-and-Toddler show. Local bookstores are my natural habitat, but not all of them are suitable for a two year old. Well before Barnes & Noble invested in couches and cappuccino, here was a store with a carpeted (!!) children’s section, benches and little tables, and my favorite part, a café with highchairs, coffee, and chocolate pastries: the Big Three Essentials to anyone with small children.

I admit I’m a book geek, but taking just one look at the promotional videos for the new Borders store I’m already salivating at the prospect of digital and print media, all in one spot. I’m not big on finding the ancestors at the genealogy site, but I would definitely take whole classrooms full of kids to publish their own books, photo essays, and soundtracks. Sure, I can make my own great media productions from my setup at home. But it’s much more fun when you’ve got all those resources, knowledgeable help, and some other folks doing the same thing right next to you, and of course not everyone will have the same access to technology from home.

Before Starbucks became an empire, CEO Howard Shultz admitted to enjoying Ray Oldenberg’s The Great Good Place, a book which takes a bunch of intellectual ideas about social geography and makes a lucid plea for new spaces for public life. Life in my little college town has all those features right nearby. But most people, especially suburbanites, live in areas where that kind of space doesn’t exist. The new Borders store, while not technically public, anticipates how digital media are already an extremely important part of people’s social and public experience, and seeks to make the Borders destination a central hub for our new print-cum-digital generation.

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