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Lorcan Dempsey and the Long Tail Revisited

Lorcan Dempsey, at the eponymous Lorcan Dempsey’s Weblog, pessimistically but elegantly tackles libraries and the Long Tail, pointing out that libraries exhibit classic–this term shall have to do–Short Tail characteristics, including redundant inventories, cripplingly high transaction costs, and bad resource navigation. That last prim comment is directed both at individual tools, such as online catalogs and overly-complex databases, and at the sum of the total of those tools. Lorcan’s observation that 20% of our resources account for 90% of our transactions would bankrupt libraries if they were publicly-owned businesses.

However, the piece has a classic problem with any work I’ve read from the oracles at the Big O: it’s largely divorced from actual OCLC practices. For example, Lorcan says: “Google introduced a major innovation with its ranking approach. Amazon is interested in rich interconnection through reviews, wishlists, reader selected lists, the various phrases (capitalized and statistically improbable), and so on. In each case, simple aggregation is not good enough: we are moving towards smart aggregation.” Nice point, but Stu Weibel, another Big O guru, recently pointed out just how poorly the Big O has implemented user reviews in Open WorldCat–an issue I badly want to write about, but 85 days away from the end of my last semester, I find myself completely absorbed in my studies for every last minute. As for OW records being discoverable in Google, only if you have a neutron microscope; whereas Amazon results “miraculously” float to the top with nearly any similar resource.

In any event, an interesting manifesto I have no quarrel with. I loved the Big O’s symposium about the Long Tail, but at the time had some trouble drawing the connection with libraries. During that afternoon I had the uneasy feeling we were acknowledging and celebrating our imminent demise. Lorcan has simply printed the obit. We can change things, but it will take a few brave souls, not to mention the cooperation and leadership of large organizations whose mantra has to be “act now,” not “do as we say, not as we do.”

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