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Getting Some Tail

“As anyone who has neglected a gym membership knows, the future-looking self can make virtuous choices that the present self wants little to do with…. When [Nextflix] DVDs arrive in the mail, customers’ present selves are likely to prefer light fare like Meet the Fockers over a demanding classic like The Seventh Seal, especially after a long day at the office. When, as a result, they postpone returning, say, just one of the three DVDs, this creates a bottleneck that reduces the costs of fulfilling a subscription.

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“As anyone who has neglected a gym membership knows, the future-looking self can make virtuous choices that the present self wants little to do with…. When [Nextflix] DVDs arrive in the mail, customers’ present selves are likely to prefer light fare like Meet the Fockers over a demanding classic like The Seventh Seal, especially after a long day at the office. When, as a result, they postpone returning, say, just one of the three DVDs, this creates a bottleneck that reduces the costs of fulfilling a subscription. Customers’ virtuous choices then become management’s reward.”

— Daniel G. & Dominique C. Goldstein, “Profiting from the Long Tail,” Harvard Business Review

Dear Librarian:

If you’re the sort who attends to the world beyond the silent stacks, you’ve surely heard certain people — attractive people in prohibitively expensive business suits — barking about something called the “long tail.” Lately every illiterate business writer and fifth-rate futurist in America has claimed a piece of the Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, crawl out from behind your desk and head to the 658.8 section of your branch.) Yes, I, too, once thought this long-tail brouhaha was a lot of balderdash spiced up with a bit of hocus-pocus, but then, while browsing in the periodical room yesterday, and I stubbed my intellectual toe on an article in a back issue of The Harvard Business Review.

In short: I was wrong. While I’ve never joined a gym or purchased a DVD player (see the quote above), this frank article spoke to me. Loudly. It showed that we librarians could — nay, should — employ this long-tail attitude to wag our own economic dog.

We can, that is, use it to dramatically increase our late fees, one of our few meager sources of library-based income. Mr. Anderson talks about these so-called “recommendation engines,” computer programs that suggest to people other DVDs or books or songs they might enjoy based on their recent selections. That’s too mild an approach. Librarians, after all, are the original recommendation engines. We should take things to the next, as it were, level and force readers to check out “virtuous” books and films, along with the standard excrement they lug out of our beautiful libraries and onto steaming beaches for light reading and then, after, some seasonal debauchery. We are, let’s remember, librarians: We have the power to shush, to stop people from using cell phones and from snacking. We can make this happen. Let’s force those philistines to haul a big fat Riverside Shakespeare or Ulysses with them when then select the latest James Patterson or Sandra Brown. Why not demand that they take home The Seventh Seal when checking out the Focker films? Maybe one or two people will actually pick up a little culture along the way….

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Now some of the ethically minded librarians will say forcing difficult works on dummies is “unfair.” Screw that. Remember: it probably sounded unfair when someone first suggested charging for photocopies, or for using the Internet, or for printing out pages from the computer.

People, we have to think of our own fiscal future. Our patronizing customers — Let’s stop using the word “patrons,” please; the de Medicis were patrons! — have had a free ride for far too long. And local and state governments aren’t exactly being considerate with their money. So, it’s time for us to collect — late fees, that is. No one will read those big heavy books. They are sure to be intimidated and repulsed by the intelligence and artistry of these classics. They will keep putting it off and off, continually increasing the size of their late fees. (BTW: Let’s get rid of our online-renewal policy. If people want to renew a book, they should have to trek out to the library.)

So do as I say, fellow stack monitors. If we let this opportunity pass by, we’ll look like asses. It’s time we finally got some tail!

—Felix W. Turkel, editor-in-chief, The American Librarian

Ken Gordon is the publisher of QuickMuse, the editor of JBooks.com, and a freelance writer.

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