Friday, May 27, 2005

OCLC Symposium: ALA Chicago

If you regularly check the OCLC web site (what? you don't?) you many have already seen a brief description of the OCLC Symposium for ALA Annual in Chicago. The title is Mining the Long Tail: Libraries, Amazoogle and Infinite Availability, and we are pleased as all get out to have as our main speaker Chris Anderson who wrote "The Long Tail" article that has had such huge resonance since it was published in October 2004. Chris is the Editor-in-Chief for Wired Magazine. Before he joined Wired in 2001 he was the US Business Editor for The Economist, and he's also worked for Nature and Science. He has a BSc. in Physics.

In a long tail, a huge number of events occur very rarely in the long skinny part of the tail (occurance could be popularity or circulation or sales) while a small number of events occur very often in the fat "head" of the tail.

Put another way, a DaVinci Code is going to be borrowed or bought a lot more frequently than Buddenbrooks, or Ulysses, or Mrs. Dalloway. And this is not a surprise to librarians because we know this to be true of library collections. But what is new is the significance of what Chris proposes.

I oversimplify but essentially The Long Tail suggests that new discovery and distribution mechanisms (such as Google or Amazon or eBay or Netflix) bring goods (be those books, or music or bicycles) to consumers in such a way that The Long Tail is "mined" much more effectively than it could be before, and that this infinite availibility has enormous implications for generating use and revenue in the long part of collections. So, we think this is all most relevant to libraries and is why we asked Chris to speak to ALA attendees.

And in an effort to address the "so what?" factor, we asked three clever people to respond to Chris's presentation. These responders are John Blossom, President and Senior Analyst, Shore Communications; Chuck Richard, Vice-President and Lead Analyst, Outsell; and Nancy Davenport, President, Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

Outsell and Shore are two sources for me about the information and content industries. They both have blogs as well as some free reports, here and here. CLIR also publishes reports such as the February 2005 report, Libraries As Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space and links to their own symposia.

If you're not familiar with the notion of The Long Tail, here's the Wikipedia entry to explain it all.

Chris's blog The Long Tail is a good place to find all kinds of links to comments and writings, and to keep up with Chris's thinking on TLT. Also, if you want to take a break from LibraryLand when you're in Chicago, Wired is hosting its annual really cool NextFest event June 24-26 at Navy Pier. Day passes are a deal at $15 at the door. Kids under 12 are free. Last year there were more than 100 hands-on exhibits including robots, flying cars, private space planes, homes of the future, unmanned aerial vehicles, hypersonic sound beams, invisibility coats, and other fun stuff. Take the kid with you or the kid in you!

If you'd like to register for the OCLC Symposium and other OCLC events at ALA, do so here. The Symposium will be held Friday, June 25th 1:30 - 4:30 pm, at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, Grand Ballroom. We think this is going to be a really thought-provoking session and there'll be plenty of time for questions and discussion. Please, plan on joining us!

1 comment:

Andy Havens said...

One of my thoughts on this subject is that libraries have been providing the Long Tail of content to society for the last couple of hundred years. In essence, libraries are well ahead of their time in providing a service-model that is based not on a peak customer/consumable logistics ratio, but on one that serves a more "virtual" and distributed customer. One that is generally called a community, especially when geographically defined.

One of the main concepts behind TLT is that the consumption of "stuff" in the bottom 50% (less popular end) of the tail is going to be at least as large, or maybe larger, than the consumption of the stuff in the top of the tail. It's just that, in most retail industries, the supply-chain logistics of serving a very spread out, diverse audience and/or serving them a very diverse set of materials is less profitable.

The movie model, which Chris goes over very well in his Wired article, is the easiest to understand. In the earliest years of films, you only had so many hours in which to show movies on a limited number of screens. Therefore, you had to show those films that would be most popular with the most numbers of people. That's the "short head," the "Top 10," the "Best Seller" or "Blockbuster" list, that sits at the very left-hand side of the graph of the long tail. Now, as single-screen theatres changed into multiplexes, cinema owners could show a bit wider variety. You could go from, let's say, the most popular movie of the week to the 5 most popular. So more movies got made. The tail got a wee bit longer.

When VCRs hit... WHAM! The tail gets about 25 times longer. Because the price structure and distro system for video is much different than for film. It took 10 years, but studios eventually learned that you can make money on video differently than on (and in combo with) theatre.

NetFlix stretched the tail even further, by allowing for even better logistics distribution efficiency. Internet distro of films with stretch it all the way.

Libraries perform the same function as does NetFlix or Amazon or any of a number of enabling technology, but they do it in a geographic manner. Just as technology has enabled entrepreneurial entities to find ways to remove barriers of economic and logistical friction, thus enabling the Long Tail, libraries have always removed those same barriers, but have -- of a necessity -- required some investment in time and travel from their users.

Think of it this way; how many millions of library patrons, through the centuries, would have been able to locate and/or afford any of the works made available through all of the thousands of libraries set up in America and the world. The physical "bringing together" of written resources done by libraries foreshadows (and, indeed, may have enabled and informed) the virtual and computerized bringing together of digital resources performed by the many entities sited by Chris in his works.

Why is the Long Tail so exciting? Because it enables more than the lowest common denominator. It allows us to pick-and-choose. It encourages diversity, a wide range of opinions and views and provides a playing field for extreme competition, which is the crucible of capitalism.

The Internet, and other technology tools, are finally enabling other industries to experience a model that libraries, their workers and customers have worked with and improved upon for centuries. My hope is that any organization looking to seriously leverage metadata as part of an attempt to incorporate the Long Tail into its business model would spend some time with (or hire) a library sciences person before trying to reinvent the wheel.