Long Tail Distribution

The Long Tail – A TTW Guest Post by Cheryl May 4

Have you ever considered whether you are a Long Tail consumer?  Are you right now scratching your head and picturing this?

Long tailed lizard

No, not this long tail

Well I will be honest.  Before reading Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service by Casey and Savastinuk (2007), the picture above is what came to my mind.  Casey and Savastinuk (2007) described how this Long Tail idea could be applied to libraries:

The idea of the Long Tail is based on one primary reality that is true for any physical library building: Shelf space is limited. As a result, we can only keep what is most in demand by our users. By only keeping what is most desired, we are choosing not to house less popular titles that appeal to a broader spectrum of readers. The untapped masses desire more esoteric titles, but, when looked at in whole, the demand for these titles is greater than the demand for hit titles. (Casey and Savastinuk, 2007, p. 16)

Casey and Savastinuk (2007) go on to dedicate a significant portion of Chapter 5: Participatory Services and the Long Tail to services libraries provide attempting to reach this so called Long Tail.  But I felt something was missing around the Long Tail in libraries because an entire chapter only discussing interlibrary loan, and library blogs with comments enabled did not seem to be a new way of thinking in my mind. With multiple references to Chris Anderson’s (2006) The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More I had to know more about the Long Tail.

So what is this Long Tail you speak of?

In short, the Long Tail is a shortened up name for a statistical long tail distribution – for Anderson (2006), the shape that follows the initial high demand of “hit” products and describes the small volume of individual niche items that are sold, but the small demand of those niche items that continues when people are able to obtain the items.  The Long Tail starts to show up in our searching and shopping habits now that we’re online and the options can be limitless when we’re not attached to shelving space.  It looks like this:

Long Tail Distribution

Anderson (2006) helped the reader comprehend the Long Tail by providing several examples.  The one that most clearly defined the Long Tail theory to me was that of Rhapsody.  Please keep in mind we are talking about the Internet in the mid-2000’s!  Rhapsody was an online music marketplace (picture iTunes) that provided people with the ability to purchase the “hits” but also had a substantial back catalogue of old hits, B-sides, and non-mainstream music genres.  Anderson’s (2006) research of the data found that while the “hits” provided about 75% of their revenue, 25% was coming from the purchases in the Long Tail.  While Anderson’s (2006) work primarily focused on the online shopping world (he also discusses Amazon, Netflix, and Google frequently), as I discussed above with Casey and Savastinuk’s (2007) Library 2.0 work, this distribution model can be applied to a number of services within the library to benefit both us and the users.Live Sex Cams

Playing with the Long Tail

We’ve already discussed interlibrary loan and library blogs as a having the ability to engage with the Long Tail, but there are several other opportunities for libraries to explore the Long Tail concept, as more and more of our services are online, do not require much if any valuable shelf space, and most importantly can be found without formal structures that physical book stacks rely on:

“… the Web obviously isn’t predicated on individuals. It’s a web. It’s about the connections. And on the World Wide Web, the connections are hyperlinks. It’s not just documents that get hyperlinked in the new world of the Web. People do. Organizations do. The Web, in the form of a corporate intranet, puts everyone in touch with every piece of information and with everyone else inside the organization and beyond.” (Weinberger, 2001, Hyperlinks section, para. 9)


Several library online systems are including the ability to search beyond what our own library subscribes to.  Exploring digital interlibrary loan document delivery systems (such as RapidILL) can mitigate the impact to users on research down time.  Providing our users with the most complete picture of the information available on any given subject is fundamentally what we’re about.  Access to information for all.  If we don’t have the budget to buy everything, with a reallocation of funds to document delivery, we can still provide it and make it available.

Peer 2 Peer

Academic and public libraries are providing more and more spaces for collaboration and learning.  By providing the “hits” for our users in our instruction and training, but then providing the opportunity for peers to learn from their peers on more niche topics, libraries can engage with the Long Tail.  Logistically, libraries cannot provide every type of instruction our users may need.  The idea of Repair Cafes is an exact example of this type of Peer 2 Peer learning that libraries are facilitating, but leaning on the niche to provide.  Repair Cafes provide users the opportunity to learn how to fix broken items in their home from other library users and community resources (Cantrell, 2017).  By engaging resources outside of the library, libraries can provide services to more users in the Long Tail.

LibGuides and Library “Pedias”

LibGuides are most often used by academic libraries to provide subject matter guidance and they are usually created by the library on the “hit” topics.  But if we want to engage our Long Tail user needs, exploring how less popular topics, but ones that have relevance to a niche group of users performing very specific research on a hard to understand topic, could be really interesting to explore opening up for creation and modification by our community.  This idea comes from the success of Wikipedia and is briefly discussed in Anderson’s (2006) work.  While there are the “hit” Wikipedia pages, there are also niche Wikipedia pages (like the Long Tail’s for example).  The niche ones are just as important for one person needing that information to start some research as the big “hit” ones are for the masses (just for fun, check out the always changing weekly Top 25 Wikipedia pages!).  Libraries exploring creating library-pedias can provide access to information with very little overhead and zero shelf space.

Institutional Repositories

The idea of an institutional repository engaging the Long Tail came to me after I attended a presentation by Dr. Pamela Bleisch this week.  Bleisch (2017) discussed how the low barrier to our student research via our open access digital scholarship [email protected] platform is providing people all over the world with research that directly impacts them.  Specifically, Bleisch (2017) referenced a senior project about a bicycle powered maize grinder that has already had 33 downloads and counting since being published on August 10, 2017.  This research is directly helping people in Malawi with food insecurity and is certainly a Long Tail candidate, with access made possible through a system that provides the “hits” and the niche needs.  The activity showing the breadth of scholarship downloaded demonstrates how our library is engaging with the Long Tail:

[email protected] Digital Readership Map

Good old Search

One way the California State University Library 23 campus system is serving the Long Tail is through the recent implementation of the ExLibris Primo search function they’ve branded OneSearch.  The OneSearch function searches the collections of all 23 campuses to produce results of all physical resources available to users all over the system (Walker, 2017).  Users can initiate an interlibrary loan request for materials at another campus using CSU+ (Walker, 2017).  This provides access to many more resources than a user may have available to them at their campus.  Library consortias are just one way we can begin expanding into the Long Tail, but another could be through providing users with the WorldCat search.  This search expands their Long Tail beyond their own library and to the entire world of participating libraries.

The future of the Long Tail in libraries

The ideas above are just a start to what libraries can begin exploring to provide more information to their Long Tail users.  As Anderson (2006) proposes

“Every one of us – no matter how mainstream we might think we are – actually goes super-niche in some part of our lives” (p. 184).

Libraries should explore the niches to determine how best to serve all users in non-mainstream ways.

There is a whole world of information out there and libraries exploring the Long Tail opportunities are on the right path for their users.

Headshot of Cheryl May

Cheryl May is the Director of Access, Operations, and Administrative Services at the Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and a graduate student at San Jose State University in the School of Information.  She lives in Baywood Park, CA with her husband, son, and numerous pets.  In her free time she reads anything she can get her hands on, hikes around SLO County, and gets crafty.  She is also passionate about health and wellness, and is a certified Les Mills BodyPump and BodyCombat group fitness instructor whom eats a plant-based diet.



Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Bleisch, P. (2017, September 14). Future of Institutional Repositories: Service, Content, Research Support. [Presentation]. Robert E. Kennedy Library, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, CA

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Information Today, Inc..

Cantrell, M. (2017, September 1). Libraries and the art of everything maintenance: Hosting repair events reduces waste, brings in new patrons. American Libraries48, 12-14. Retrieved from https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2017/09/01/libraries-everything-maintenance-repair-cafe/

Walker, D. (2017, June 13). OneSearch: The new CSU library discovery system. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://libraries.calstate.edu/onesearch-the-new-csu-library-discovery-system/

Weinberger, D. (2001). The hyperlinked organization. The cluetrain manifesto. Retrieved from http://www.cluetrain.com/book/hyperorg.html

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4 thoughts on “The Long Tail – A TTW Guest Post by Cheryl May

  • Lisa Molson

    I welcome the day when consortia allows us to access materials from other countries. Maybe electronically one day? I know some already include collections on open source. I like the idea of expanding lib guides for niche groups. Well done.

  • Mary Finn

    It’s funny because I never understood what the long tail meant until these readings. Even after reading, I wasn’t sure I fully got it. But, after reading your post I know totally understand the concept and the illustrations that you provide helped. Thanks for the post!

  • Cheryl Post author

    @maryfinn I was about 10 pages into Anderson’s book when I had the ah-ha moment! The hardest part of this review was trying to funnel every idea down and not write another book! Even after the module readings this week, I had more ideas on how to engage the Long Tail… maybe another post! ~C

  • Swetta

    Hi Cheryl, thanks for explaining this so clearly! The long tail for libraries made me think about the shared print project my library is participating in with other libraries as a part of SCELC. Where the last print of a copy will be retained by at least one of the participating libraries, so that we don’t lose that document.