A Very Long Tail Indeed

Note: expect a lag on many LITA blog postings, since Internet access is sparse and spotty (wifi in McCormick is only available in three spots, and many of us will be covering events in hotels we aren’t staying at, where wifi would be an extra charge for us) and many of us are in the “eye of the storm,” running from event to event from early in the morning until late at night.

Press your ear against the wall, celebrate the confluence of the Web and niche marketing, keep your eyes on “That damned, elusive Pimpernel,” and think big-picture, long-view about preservation and access for digital content. Those were just a few of the ideas that came out of Friday’s OCLC symposium, Mining the Long Tail, held to an overflow crowd in Hilton’s eponymous Grand Ballroom, a huge, elegant venue dripping with gilt, mirror, and crystal.

The Long Tail concept turns some basic marketing concepts upside down. One of the points made yesterday was that major online retailers and organizations are able to make a lot of money from titles that are relatively obscure, because the inventory overhead for virtual stores is significantly less than for physical stores that must produce duplicate copies of items and ship, stock, and manage them. If you replace NetFlix or Amazon with “library,” the implication for us here is significant.

The speakers, were fascinating and lively, though the first speaker, Chris Anderson, spoke so fast I had trouble keeping up with his points (dude, go easy on the Red Bull!). Most of Anderson’s points can be found in an article he wrote for Wired Magazine last October which was available as an 8-page handout at the symposium (along with excellent bag-SWAG).

One other point that dwelled within me was the concept of pre- and post-filtering. Anderson saw a shift towards the latter, which he broke down this way:

Editors vs. Peers
A&R Guys (??) vs. Recommendations
Studio execs vs. word of mouth
Buyers vs. buyers

As I listened, I thought, I don’t see this model as either-or, but as and/and. We can continue to pre-filter, adding value ahead of time through material selection and organization, but we can also enable meta-rich, interactive, user-engaging post-filtering, allowing readers and users to add their own meaning to digital objects. User ratings in online catalogs, library blogs that invite comments, user education for assessing digital information—librarianship can not only exploit the Long Tail, but use it to enrich our profession and those we serve.

Two other speakers (whose names are in a brochure in my hotel room…) brought up good points. Some, almost in passing, greatly inspired many of us with a few resonating comments. “Outsource the nonunique, focus on noncommercial and local,” we were told—a point I heard PLA members talking about a decade ago. With the rise of music downloading, iTunes, and enabling technology such as the iPod, the FM radio world is in free-fall; one rock radio a week is closing, we learned.

I say this not from jingoism, but the final speaker, Nancy Davenport from CLIR, inspired me the most, particularly in the way she wove the concept of the Long Tail into her points about the need to preserve scholarly material and “keeping it usable over time.” Davenport added, “We have tools that can democratize the process and we have values we would like to maintain: equal access, right to read, right to privacy, core knowledge and skills about recommendations.” She challenged us to visionary leadership, asking, “What do we do with our objects to make them useful to future generations?”

We stumbled out into the swamp of heat and humidity in rush-hour traffic. As I hoofed it cross-town to LITA Happy Hour (dang! A great time had by all, but did we take pictures?), I kept running into LITA members having mini-conversations about this symposium, arms waving as they talked about long tails, user-added content, rock stations, preservation.Well done, Big O.