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Long Tail Revisited

September 11, 2006

The “long tail” mentioned last week is a graphical representation of a common distribution. A pretty picture. (For beautiful pictures and discussions of graphical information, see the books of Edward Tufte, of which the library has three, such as “The visual display of quantitative information.”)

The “long tail” makes a good picture of popular culture vs. niche culture. The steep part of the curve on the left might include bestsellers, Microsoft WindowsXP, and Safeway. The shallow tail heading far off to the right would include self-published novels, Linux operating systems, and a store that sells only rice pudding.

In Salida (pop. 6,000), niche markets are too small to support niche stores. You can buy fine chocolates here, but you have to go to Hattie’s Pub. In Grand Junction (pop. 45,000), a big sign says “Video and Tan.” In New York City (pop. 8,000,000), a store can be successful selling nothing but rice puddings.

Most libraries serve up popular culture: bestsellers, fad diets, “Time” and “Newsweek.” But libraries, individually and especially collectively through Interlibrary Loan, serve up niche culture, too.

Local history is an obvious niche. But many libraries have peculiar collections, too. We have an extensive collection of old sheet music, but it is only very rarely used.

The local need for sheet music seems covered by the Reader’s Digest collections of popular favorites and “Sheet Music Magazine.” These are in the tall head of the curve; the old sheet music is in the “long tail.”

The old music would find a better market in an urban or university collection, such as the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Or … we could catalog the music and put it on the Internet, where it could connect to its small but dispersed niche market. Here is a crucial factor in the development of the “long tail” — the finding tools and communication afforded by the Internet.

Coupled with a cheap, reliable shipping network, the Internet created an enormous new marketplace. The demand was always there for a million esoteric things, but supplying them was not economical. Now, any seller can find a buyer, and vice versa. In libraries, any book can find a reader, and vice versa.

One possible consequence of the modern marketplace, where every niche is served, where consumers have many choices, is a kind of burnout. Having too many choices can be oppressive. This is discussed in “The paradox of choice: why more is less” by Barry Schwartz.

In “The Long Tail,” author Chris Anderson disagrees particularly with this conclusion. What online consumers have that traditional consumers often lack is ready information and advice about their choices. Then, they embrace choice.

After reading the book, I decided that what Safeway needs (or, what I want it to have) are kiosks with computer screens that let me search for any item in the store. Instead of wondering if coconut milk might be in “Asian foods” because it’s used in Thai cooking or in the drink aisle because it’s used in Pina Coladas, I could look it up and know exactly.

Then, I might be offered a list of other Thai ingredients along with their locations, plus star ratings by customers, the items on sale highlighted, and a reminder that Wednesday is Thai Night at the Salida Café. A receipt printer could slip me the list.

This is how the “long tail” is made available — through information and communication. It is one promise of the Internet.

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