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This term I am taking a really interesting course – “COGS 303 – Research Methods in Cognitive Systems” – which is intended as a guide to doing successful research in Cognitive Science. One of our regular assignments will be to write opinion pieces with a strong 400 word limit – a good exercise in clarity and brevity. We chose our topic from a list and must defend it within the word limit. I’ll post my essays to the interwebs so that they can be evaluated in the harshest of battlefields. Here’s the first:

Topic: The advent of the digital age makes public libraries obsolete. (Affirmative)

Current trends in technological and cultural development make it unlikely that public libraries will survive in their traditional format.

Firstly, the book itself is becoming a thing of the past. Although ebook usage has not become widespread as quickly as many anticipated with the advent of the computer, this slow adoption is beginning to accelerate with the recent development of specialized ebook readers which use electronic-paper technology, such as the high-profile Amazon Kindle, which has sold tens of thousands of units. Just as consumers are moving away from hard-copy formats in music and videos, towards electronic files, the same will happen with books once ereader technology reaches the “killer app” level achieved by the iPod for music. With the decline of the physical book will come the necessary decline of the physical library.

Secondly, the internet is creating a culture where information and files are shared freely, negating the need for public institutions to hoard and distribute books. This has already been observed in music and videos – despite their best efforts, recording companies cannot stop the inevitable free sharing of data. The same process is under way with books – Project Gutenberg makes it possible to find almost any popular public domain classic free on-line, while Google Books is doing the same with more obscure selections. Already there is a large collection of commercial books which have been scanned into digital formats and are available for download (a short search found both textbooks for this course).

The internet presents a better way to achieve the goals of libraries than physical libraries themselves – namely free and open access to information and books. Providing free access to the internet would be a more effective way of making media available than building and supporting large buildings filled with unread books. Once this fact becomes apparent to governments, it will become difficult to justify the larger relative cost of running a traditional library. Relative environmental impact is another point in favour or switching to a digital format.

Furthermore, the internet has demonstrated its effectiveness for bringing people together in a social network to share preferences within a given domain. Last.fm is a popular music sharing and discovery resource. These types of sites are popular amongst the current generation, and are a likely candidate to replace the community fostered by traditional libraries.

Altogether, trends indicate that traditional libraries will become obsolete.