Why Don’t Libraries Exhibit Long Tail?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, citing a January 2 story in the Washington Post, John Miller notes a trend in the library business: removing books that aren’t checked out often. It seems that no one has checked out For Whom the Bell Tolls in 24 months, and the Fairfax County Public Library may purge its copy.

In the retail industry, one would say that Hemingway has “low velocity” and replace him with something that “turns faster:” a best-seller. Libraries are stocking more new releases and cutting low velocity items to make space. For example, my local library stocks extra copies of popular new titles for 7-day checkout, no renewals. They used to charge a fee for these high-demand books, which I refused on principle. The extra books are later sold for a few dollars.

Why doesn’t Fairfax County library usage exhibit a Long Tail? Is its population of 1 million too small (68% are cardholders)? Search costs at a library are very low and, for residents, transportation cost isn’t a problem either (population density in Fairfax is 2,455 per square mile). The library has 8 locations and 12 community branches, which recieved 5.2 million visits in 2006 and loaned 11.3 million items. The collection is “nearly 3 million books… and other items.”

Are library users changing? Mr. Miller suggests that the Fairfax library is responding to customer needs: library users want to read new releases without spending $20 or $30.

If public libraries attempt to compete in this [increasingly competitive and diverse publishing and retail] environment , they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille’s newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.

(I’m certainly guilty of this. I try not to buy books I haven’t already read. The public library spreads the cost of bad books over many readers, a valuable service. At the same time, I’m nonplussed by a library that doesn’t want to stock American classics – but I also like public institutions to save tax dollars by applying private-sector performance metrics like inventory turns and GMROI. I don’t know why Mr. Miller thinks that retail is a poor model for libraries; retail is one of the most innovative industries of the past 30 years.)

Finally, why are all the titles and authors in the Washington Post list so familiar? It’s implied that this list is complete and exhaustive:

The following books have been weeded from the shelves of various branches of the Fairfax County Public Library system or haven’t been checked out in 24 months and could be discarded.

But the 22 at-risk titles read like a who’s who: Hemingway, Stein, Proust, Faulkner, Hardy, Kerouac, Pasternak, Angelou, Williams, Bronte, Solzhenitsyn, Marlowe, Fitzgerald, Eliot – even To Kill a Mockingbird. This can’t be the whole story. After all, these titles aren’t being eliminated from the entire system – only from specific regional branches.

RELATED: Patience and Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy, by Nicholas A. Basbanes

3 Responses to “Why Don’t Libraries Exhibit Long Tail?”

  1. recombinantsocks Says:

    Long tails normally include items that occur at very large intervals. For Whom the Bell Tolls would eventually get borrowed bit it just hasn’t happened to have been borrowed in 25 months.
    The other parallel with retail is that retailers try to learn from their customers rather than trying to decide what they should buy. This isn’t a black and white division since they do try to push certain lines but retailers simply can’t afford to not stock the things that their customers definitely want.
    I particularly like the way that your library introduced the 7 day checkout. I bet that will encourage people to visit more often. More visits will generate more loans which will mean a more popular library.

  2. Timothy Says:


    The 7-day checkout is great. It forces high velocity on those books, and gives everyone access to titles they otherwise wouldn’t see for months. Plus it’s like having a promotional display with a lot of facings in retail, compared to having one facing back in the gondola. There should be a big jump just from that.

    It seems tough to justify on a cost basis, if you are spending say $25 each for new hardcovers with library processing – $100 to $150 or so for each title in this section. I guess the math would be, cost / times borrowed, and compare that to the average book purchased. If it’s lower, you can justify buying and discarding the extra copies.

    My rule of thumb was from Chris Anderson’s data on Raphsody. 98% of albums had at least one track downloaded every three months. Not sure about the size of their membership but I’d be surprised if it was many multiples of 680K (Fairfield’s cardholders).

    Hey, welcome to the blogosphere.

  3. Classics in No Danger at Fairfax County Public Library « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] in No Danger at Fairfax County Public Library First, an apology. When I last wrote about the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post stories on the Fairfax County Public Library, I […]

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