Technophiles, Long Tails and Juggernauts Rule First ALA Experience

nmrt footnotes

By Adelaide Myers Fletcher

I was, as a matter of course, overwhelmed by my first experience at ALA. Everyone is, and everyone gets lost it seems, no matter how much they prepare. But what will rest with me much longer than those experiences is the strange juxtaposition of technology with ALA’s obvious commitment to service.

At ALA I received my formal introduction to this profession, and it became very apparent to me just how much libraries are changing—more rapidly than I had guessed from the confines of my library school. This is a time of great flux and I have arrived just in time to see things really take shape. I couldn’t be more excited to witness it, even if at times it feels like I’m treading water, barely able to keep my lips above the surface.

As my plane landed in Chicago I discussed my travel plans with my seatmates. It turns out they too were going to Chicago for a conference—Wired Magazine’s NextFest. What a coincidence, I thought, Technophiles meet Bibliophiles. Would it be, I wondered, a major contrast? Would the two groups even be aware of one another’s presence in the city?

So, before I even went to ALA, I stopped by the NextFest to see what it was all about. It was Friday, the day it was free to students of all ages. About a million school-aged kids and I wandered around, dazed by the dramatic displays. Everything was hands-on, 3-D and interactive. I saw everything from a cloned kitten to a hydrogen vehicle to the Mythbusters, Jamie and Adam. Then I sat and talked with an ironically named android, Philip K. Dick. It was surreal.

All of this was swirling around my head as I went to my first ALA session, an OCLC Symposium entitled “Mining the Long Tail: Libraries, Amazoogle, and Infinite Availability”. I was late, having visited two Hiltons before finally landing at the right one. I walked in to hear Chris Anderson, editor of (surprise!) Wired Magazine, talking about this thing he called the “Long Tail.”

I can hardly do it justice, but the concept goes something like this: there are your popular titles (books, movies, music, etc.) and they make up the “head.” They are the products people are buying in large numbers. And then there is, well, everything else: the less popular, the obscure, the old, the niche market stuff. These things are found in the tail. They are the books, movies, and music that certain people will go to great lengths to find, and their mass makes up the right hand side of a long, negatively exponential curve. Because of their relative “popularity”, a Britney Spears single would fall near left, up high, in the head, and a live B-side Ani DiFranco track would fall at the right, down low, in the tail. This is really nothing new to librarians, especially when it comes to collection development, but the model is changing. The tail is growing in size and importance as people begin to get their entertainment from sources other than hit-driven mass market venues like Blockbuster and Barnes and Noble. Fueled by recommendations and ratings tools that are yet to be truly understood, people are straying further and further from the mainstream, and they like it.

But, so what, right? We’re not bookstores, we’re librarians. We’re not slaves to the mass market; we try to collect books for all kinds of interests. Libraries have always been in the long tail business—to some extent. There is danger in such complacence, though, because the implications aren’t clear for libraries yet. I’m certainly in no position to speculate, but that’s why I’m in school.

It made me think, though, about the possibilities provided by the Internet and how they’ve grown exponentially these last few years. And with those thoughts, I went to another session that following Monday - an introduction to Google Print and Google Scholar right from their sources: Google and the five libraries involved.

When I was a kid I had fantasies of reading every book ever written. I was voracious. Of course I knew that it wasn’t possible to get every book ever written, not only because I had no real concept of the bibliographic universe—can you imagine?—but because I knew that books existed around the world that I would never have the means to see. I didn’t anticipate that this would change in my lifetime, but now I’m not so sure. Chris Anderson said that the concept “out of print” is becoming obsolete. If you really want to find a book, it doesn’t matter if it is out of print—it will be on the Internet somewhere. That is what I heard, although I know how much librarians hate statements like that. The concept “out of print” is being replaced with a new one, he said, one that says “Now Playing: Every Movie Ever Made”. That’s fine for movies and for Netflix, but the concept of every book ever written; well that’s what the Google session was all about.

It would take a lot more than a newsletter article to explain how that session went, but I’ll just say that it was uncanny after my other experiences at ALA. Put them all together and I feel like one of the characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune when they realize that it is not an earthquake moving under their feet; it is not the earth at all, but something much larger, scarier, and at once, exhilarating. Is this thing under my feet the Google juggernaut? Is it the library profession? It seems I’m left with more questions than answers right now, but I do know that I will try to ride this thing out, for better or for worse.