The long tail

Is the library world as a whole set to benefit from the Long Tail?

The long tail is a concept that makes a lot of sense in my mind, but it also seems to me that libraries have been invested in the concept of the long tail forever. Though there are indeed the constraints of “physical space” on a public library’s collection (collection development is necessarily driven by local interest), the core service of readers’ advisory is, as I see it, the same thing as Amazon’s “Customers also bought these…”

Though we as consumers have a traditional “hit-based” economic model ingrained into our conception of the market, I see the library as already enacting a long tail model in that it strives to provide free services, both “hit-based” (popular fiction, perhaps?) and marginal (manga, maybe?), in order to achieve the kind of model that Anderson is so adamant about supporting.

Parts of Anderson’s article are indeed prescient in ways that can, however, have an additional effect on the library. He paraphrases Danny Stein at one point who argues music may move away from an ownership model completely. “With ubiquitous broadband, both wired and wireless, more consumers will turn to the celestial jukebox of music services that offer every track ever made, playable on demand.” We can see this happening already with services like Pandora and, even more customizable, Spotify. Where Pandora chooses music for you based on things you say you like, Spotify lets you choose exactly what you want, when you want it.

Imagine a public library service that could offer the same thing? Or something like Netflix’s “Watch Instantly“? Or an academic library that could produce articles or chapters of books “on-demand” for students and faculty, if the market dictated to academic publishers in the same way that the music market has to its own powers that be.

As the market changes for consumers, so the advantages for libraries will increase. Loosening up the requirements on republishing or making music or print material available to the public is where I see the long tail’s continued advantage for libraries. And while we wait for the market to catch up, we can all still checkout our favorite DVDs at the local public branch.

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