The Finite Library
August 2013

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A few months ago I moved from San Francisco to New York to start a new company. More specifically, an ebook company.

As I had just moved out West two years ago and regretted bringing too much on that cross-country relocation, I decided against moving a lot. IKEA furniture doesn’t tend to travel well and I wanted to feel light on my feet again.

Packing boxes, I quickly realized that the bulk of what made the cut was books— beautiful editions from my favorite designers and writers and sentimental favorites. Many, though, did not make the cut. Paperbacks, business books, and magazines were brought out to the yard sale, sold off and donated to fill new libraries and hopefully spark someone’s inspiration again.

While reassembling and unboxing back East, I realized that with each relocation, another type of media has been purged from my collection. First it was not bringing any CDs to college (iTunes), then no DVDs to San Francisco (.avi files on external hard drives), and to now leaving many books behind on my way to New York. 1

These transitions have provided something much greater than simple ease of relocation. It has never been easier to make and share a playlist, a library, or collect a series of articles. When introduced with a universal library of music, movies, or books we can confidently build community through common access.

But as we begin to discard and transfer our collections and personal inventories to online services, we are confronted with an inability to fully understand our inventory and the size of what we call our own. I had to make decisions about what to move because I only bought 10 moving boxes. These constraints on my library made me think hard and have a greater appreciation for the that books I kept. The internet, by comparison, has no limit, and thus has no barriers to what we can collect and create.

Today we all have the opportunity to be public curators and critics. But with this ease of collection we have lost the rarity and challenge behind its physical counterpart. As the barrier to these interactions continues to drop, we become increasingly casual and careless with what we collect. We perceive our digital detritus to have no weight. 2

We are at an exciting impasse for the accessibility of content (e.g., images, writing), but simultaneously are confronted with a litany of services focused on incomplete collection and organization. This abundance of sources, media types, and proprietary systems has led to a fragmented and often frustrating environment. Few services promise the comprehensiveness of being your definitive library. Netflix, while likely replacing many viewers DVD libraries, offers no tools for curation and no sense of collection apart from a to-watch list queue.

I lament this loss of selectivity in our transition to the digital. I believe that this spike in data-rich but overlarge collections will be metered by the demand for more comprehensive services that value scarcity and the power of choice as much as the ability to collect without purpose. Products that effectively filter and serve appropriate content and allow for the creation of meaningful libraries will thrive amidst the noise.

Notes

1. And in the 5 years since transferring my music and movies from CDs and DVDs to the digital locker (iTunes) I have now largely shed ownership all together, opting for the networked seamlessness of services like Rdio, Netflix, Hulu, and HBOGo. 

2. Today, I can collect nearly every song in the world without even a purchase decision. I don’t need to decide whether a song really deserves a spot in my library because the osmosis between my “collection” and Rdio’s “collection” doesn’t really exist. 

 

Thanks for reading.

 
 

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🙇 Willem Van Lancker
🗽 New York City

📚 Co-founder of Oyster
🔍 (acquired by Google)

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🏄 @vanlancker