The aim of this paper is to study if a link can be established between the role of new public libraries in contemporary society and the application of the long tail paradigm to the physical world (according to Chris Anderson's analysis in his 2006 book entitled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More), and in particular if these new libraries can learn new, useful lessons for their collection and service planning starting from this point.
The analysis will be carried out through theoretical means and the proposal of some case studies of newly built public libraries in Europe. In particular, an Italian public library, the Sala Borsa Library in Bologna, an English one, the Whitechapel Idea Store, and one in Spain, the Jaume Fuster Library. Each of these libraries will offer a different point of view and a different answer for strengthening the relationship between public libraries and citizens' needs.
The proposed theoretical analysis and the case studies raise the need to evaluate the existing public libraries and to plan the new ones in relation to the following issues: the long tail paradigm, together with other trends characterising the contemporary urban lifestyles, put the survival of public libraries under threat, because a generic offer with limited choice finds no place in today's cultural and economic landscape anymore; central public libraries need to rely upon large and functional buildings, comprehensive collections encompassing hits and niches, extensive opening hours, a broad variety of services and edutainment activities and an aptitude to embody a social role; local/branch libraries cannot survive below certain sizes, unless they bet on very specific niches of the public, for example either people who are less willing or unable to move around the city very much (elderly people, children, disabled people and so on) or topics and subjects which are only superficially covered by other libraries and suppliers on the territory; and in general, public libraries should emphasise their role as service desks functioning as a go‐between for other – more specialised – bibliographic services and for other learning, informative, entertaining and cultural opportunities inside and outside the metropolitan area.
An analysis of the consequences the long tail has on the future development of libraries has already been started in library science. However, no specific considerations have been taken on how the application of this paradigm could (and should) change the relations in the urban library networks and help big and small public libraries in finding new balance and complementary roles in satisfying citizens' needs.
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