The long tail in libraries

Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 1 July 2005



O'Beirne, R. (2005), "The long tail in libraries", Reference Reviews, Vol. 19 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The long tail in libraries

In recent times a number of significant papers and reports have been published which put the UK’s public library service under the microscope. This activity reached its peak with the publication of a Commons Select Committee report in March (House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, 2005). The committee, led by Gerald Kaufman and taking evidence from a wide range of “witnesses” reached conclusions and made recommendations that make interesting reading. From the perspective of the reference librarian it must be said from the outset that reference and information services do not figure large in the deliberations of the committee. This is a real shame. As one might expect the role of the public library is discussed in abundance. All the “good things” about the library such as reading, books, neutral space, the aspects that all librarians cherish and support, are mentioned. The reference library and the giving of information in response to an enquiry, is only briefly touched on. Perhaps it is implicit in every mention of the library but I rather think that the lending of books, and especially the performance measurement of this lending, is the key focus of public libraries at present.

The measurement of an enquiry service has been an exercise all too often reduced from a complex relationship between librarian, enquirer and resources, to simple bean counting. Across public and academic libraries it has not been easy to measure accurately, therefore there has been a difficulty in assessing enquiry work. This in turn has left the reference service very much on the fringes, if not outside, the debate. Where there has been inclusion it is often based on a qualitative approach and while such an approach may be accepted in academia, perhaps because of its similarity with social science research methodologies, in the less enlightened local authority setting, numbers, and lots of them, are used to chart the progress of the public library.

One feels that in the provision of the public library service there should perhaps be a fundamental change. Is the basis on which the public library movement was created still secure today? Has the need for such a service changed, or have the economic models kept pace with the market? There has always been a tendency to compare and contrast the library business with the book retailing. In so doing it is interesting to note the recent thinking about the economics of the internet and the discussions surrounding the “long tail”. The long tail is an image given to the right side of a graph that plots demand on its vertical axis against time on its horizontal axis, the tail represents the greatly diminished but still in-demand items over a long period of time. Another term for the long tail is the “Zipf distribution” based on the work of George Kingsley Zipf, a professor of linguistics who observed that a small number of words are very frequently used in any language while many or most words are less well used. (Incidentally Zipf’s Law is related to Bradford’s law which is used in information retrieval).

Internet economists are now beginning to suggest that the value and quantity of long tail sales may ultimately be greater than those of the short head. Primary among such thinkers is Chris Anderson. He explains the long tail phenomenon:quote: In short, recommendations. The online bookseller’s software noted patterns in buying behavior and suggested that readers who liked Into Thin Air would also like Touching the Void. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations, and the positive feedback loop kicked in (Anderson 2004) is a good example: they generate most of their revenue from sales of their back catalogue not the new releases of books, CDs or DVDs. So maybe when it is suggested that public libraries should be rushing to find a sustainable model, what they really need to do is examine their long tail. The assumption that readers will only want to borrow the latest fiction may be very wrong and the huge amount of material stored away might just see a renewed interest. But then as reference librarians you probably knew this already. And, as a final thought, the next time you are negotiating a deal with an online content provider why not ask their view of the long tail.

Ronan O’BeirneInternet Editor, Reference Reviews and Principal Libraries Officer, Bradford Libraries, Archives and Information Service, Bradford, UK


Anderson, C. (2004), The Long Tail Wired Magazine, Vol. 12 No. 10, available at: archive/12.10/tail.html

House of Commons. Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport (2005), Third Report: Public Libraries (HC 81), available at: committees/culture__media_and_sport/cms_050309.cfm

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