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Aggregating Demand

February 18th, 2006 (12:47 pm)

current mood: sleepy

Lorcan has a good post talking about the long tail notion and its relevance to libraries. While I don't disagree with any of his observations, it did remind me a bit of a Woody Allen short story in which Allen describes a recurring dream in which he finds himself as Socrates under arrest and awaiting execution by the Senate. It includes the wonderful exchange:

Simmias: The senate is furious over your ideas for a Utopian state.
Socrates: I guess I should never have suggested having a philosopher-king.
Simmias: Especially when you kept pointing to yourself and clearing your throat.

Lorcan correctly notes that economic exploitation of the long tail requires both aggregation of supply and aggregation of demand, and has a good analysis of some of the issues around aggregation of supply, but he says relatively little about aggregation of demand. But there are two things that I think are worth noting about the aggregation of demand issue:

1. Libraries/archives/museums exist to server particular communities. Even the OAIS reference model includes discussion of the notion of a "designated community" and notes that part of an archive's fundamental job is monitoring that community and responding to its needs. Aggregation of demand, at least at the level which allows you to exploit the economies of scale necessary for a 'long tail' business model, means that you're going to have to abandon the notion of serving a particular community, at least in the sense that we have usually used the term 'community' in our profession.
2. Because of #1, any given library is incredibly poorly positioned to aggregate demand; it's simply not part of the mission of any library I know. Even Library of Congress goes out of its way to keep reminding people that they are the Library of Congress and not the National Library.

So, if exploiting the long tail requires aggregating demand, libraries aren't the institutions to do it. You would need another institution, perhaps one that already is engaged in the business of bringing together supply and demand for bibliographic data. And who could that be? Oh, I don't know, could be anybody, say...OCLC???

I don't think Lorcan is being deliberately coy here, but he does note that the need for aggregating demand in the long tail world, and if that's going to actually happen, you need to create the 'one stop shopping' service for discovering bibliographic resources, and the only way I see that happening is by libraries outsourcing the entire job of having an OPAC to Google, or giving the job to OCLC instead.

It's certainly something to think about, and it may very well be a good way to allow libraries to continue to be survive, but I think it will fundamentally disrupt the notion that a given library serves its particular community. A given library instead would need to become part of a consolidated library system which exists to serve the whole world. Maybe that's good, maybe bad, but it has some obvious ramifications for public funding of libraries. We are able to get local/state tax money because we serve the residents of our community, not those in Canada. If the library world tries to adopt a model in which we try to improve the efficiency of delivering information on a national or global scale, I think we're going to need some new funding sources, because I don't think state/local governments are going to be thrilled about coughing up the money, and there's no chance that the federal government will be coming up with funding for such a thing any time soon.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: February 18th, 2006 08:20 pm (UTC)
aggregation of demand

Sure .. OCLC hopes to contribute here. OpenWorldCat and related initiatives aim to mobilize the collective resources of libraries on the web. Other initiatives will also address this issue, I am sure.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: February 19th, 2006 01:34 am (UTC)
Aggregating demand again

I read too quickly ;-)

I agree with much of what you say. But when you come down to aggregating demand what I say does not imply that you lose the local connection. Two things. One, I argue that library resources have lower gravitational pull than some other services. That means that if you want effectively to reach your **own** user population you may have to think differently about offering service. Libraries will need to project more strongly into those other environments where their users are. They may have to work harder to aggregate demand within their own user constituency. Two, we are seeing a move to systemwide collaborations which aggregate supply and aggregate demand. OhioLink provides a good example.

Posted by: darth_libris (darth_libris)
Posted at: February 20th, 2006 12:31 am (UTC)
Re: Aggregating demand again

I definitely agree with the notion that effectively reaching a local user population may require thinking differently about offering service. If I'm reading what you're proposing correctly, we're talking about a shift for libraries in which there is no longer a question about whether they can make information resource X available; since that isn't an issue anymore, we need to focus on insuring that users can always find their desired resources, and radically change the mechanisms by which we deliver them to insure that we can put them in users' hands as quickly as possible. We may not have to beat Amazon (libraries still have that advantage of being free), but we need to start trying to achieve similar ease of use/speed in getting information into the patrons' hands.

If we're really talking an environment in which libraries engage in a far greater degree of collaboration to try to improve our capacity to deliver information, though, I think that the notion that collection development is one of the key ways in which we try to cater to our users is more or less dead. We'd need to stop thinking about what our particular users want and focus on what optimizes delivery of information on a much larger scale than just our local community. When the hope is to be able to deliver everything to anyone, collection development just doesn't have that much significance except to the degree it contributes to improved delivery logistics for the whole library community.

I suspect that what applies to collection development will apply to many other areas as well. So, as a practical matter, if libraries are going to collaborate to improve their discovery processes and delivery logistics, they're going to have to cede purely local control on many issues to group decisions. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, and may very well lead to better services for users. But a library's ability to customize services to their local population will be limited by the need to insure interoperability with, and support for, the larger library community.

Projecting into other environments where users are is going to be tricky, I'm thinking, particularly for public libraries where your opportunities to interact with your user community and show them what's possible are fewer, and the use environments are more diverse. I suppose one approach would be to start trying to offer radically new services (online archiving of family photos/videotapes/oral histories as part of a community history project?) and use those as opportunities to educate users on how to better exploit other library services. But I'm skeptical about how effectively we're going to be able to do this type of projection. But maybe I should check and see how many people are using the Openly OpenURL plugin around here before I say that.

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