Friday, February 09, 2007

The long tail and the Madison Public Library

Interesting post by Sarah in the Madison Public Library's MADreads blog -- "Is small the new big?" She's writing about books relating to the trendy new "long tail" theory of niche marketing.
I’ve been reading a lot of books like Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More and Seth Godin’s Small Is the New Big: 183 Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas. The ideas behind these books are simple, and seem logical to me: there is more stuff available to look at and buy than we can currently find, and niche businesses are the businesses of the future.
In many ways, libraries have long been the very model of a successful long tail business, the very opposite of a mass marketer. Library stacks are filled with countless individual volumes that are only checked out once every few years, but remain there for the library patrons who need them. Tom Storey writes in the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) Newsletter about the libraries and the long tail.
Network television audience share has fallen 33 percent over the last 20 years, according to Nielsen Media Research. Radio listenership is at a 27-year low based on data from Duncan’s American Radio. Newspaper circulation, which peaked in 1987, continues to tumble, dropping 2 percent over the last six months, the Audit Bureau of Circulations says. Total magazine circulation has dropped to 1994 levels. And music CD sales are down 21 percent from their high in 1999.

These numbers suggest a profound transformation is taking place in the way people research, learn, entertain themselves and find things out in a networked environment. Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief at Wired Magazine, noted many of these trends in his seminal article, “The Long Tail,” which has struck a chord in technology and media circles. The Long Tail is Anderson’s business model for the digital age. It argues that the Web has started a complete revolution in the movie, book and music businesses.

Basically, The Long Tail says that big changes are in store—in fact, already taking place—as a new digital media and entertainment economy emerges. Digitization and e-delivery are radically changing economic fundamentals and creating new markets for millions of niche items. No longer are megahits, blockbusters and best-sellers designed for mass audiences the Holy Grail to success and riches. The digital environment, with its low storage and distribution costs, offers a viable alternative: aggregate the obscure and unpopular with the popular and widely celebrated using an automated recommendation system to link the two.


If Anderson’s theory is correct, and all media are in the throes of radical change, libraries may be well-positioned for this new era. The Long Tail is something they understand and have practiced for years, perhaps without realizing it, says Nancy Davenport, President, Council for Library and Information Resources. The model for how libraries have built their collections sounds a lot like The Long Tail. Whether it’s New York Times best-sellers or scholarly journals, libraries stock up on what they need to meet “high point” demand, she says, but also purchase less popular materials to fill out the collection and serve niches, which might be genealogy, travel or the history of furniture making. “Libraries are the edification of The Long Tail,” she says.
Amazon is often cited as the prototypical long tail business, but to me it's still a pale echo of the resources of the library. Sure, Amazon is great when I want to buy something and have it delivered quickly (or check out some user reviews). But I don't want to buy every book I read. Instead, I rely on my favorite long tail organization, the Madison Public Library. They were online even before Amazon existed. In typical long tail fashion, their "ordering process" is friction free and electronic, taking only an instant to reserve the book I want and be notified via email when it comes in.

It's precisely because I value the library's long tail capability that it always saddens me to see it deaccessioning or weeding books from its collection. It's like snipping off part of the tail of that living, breathing organism, the library.

1 comment:

Nonanon said...

Glad you liked the post, and even gladder you like MPL. The library is a perfect example of the long tail, I feel, and should function as a perfect counterpoint to new bookstores, where items are typically on the shelves only six months until they're remaindered or returned. And there's lots of good stuff out there that wasn't published in the last six months...