Librarians, IA, and the Long Tail of Information Spaces

Not sure if anyone has ever made this connection before, but I’m going to give a try. Let me know if you’ve heard this already. Here goes:

If we consider all published information in the world, we can assume it takes on a long tail curve. The most people sources are read by only a small percentage of people. Librarianship is really about organizing information in the head of the long tail curve. Sure, there are special libraries, like science libraries and music libraries, but even those are concerned with organizing the hits.

After the advent of the web, IA arose out the need to organize information in the long tail. At some point the long tail of information spaces got so fat, someone realized that we need special, dedicated people to take care of our informatoin problems. IA is about finding custom solutions in a niche market for a particular business or client.

My point is that attacks on things like the Dewey Decimal System by people like Clay Shirky and David Weinberger are irrelevant to IA. IAs aren’t concerned about organizing all of human knowledge. We tend to work in niche markets. And it’s in niche markets that things like taxonomy and controlled vocabularies make most sense because they are bounded domains. Even Mr Shirky admits that himself in his polemic article on ontology:

“Ontological classification works well in some places, of course. You need a card catalog if you are managing a physical library. You need a hierarchy to manage a file system. So what you want to know, when thinking about how to organize anything, is whether that kind of classification is a good strategy.”

Of course.

On the other side of the coin, things like tagging might be better when organizing the hits. There you’ll get a critical mass of tags to make them worthwhile. But tagging in niche markets might have holes. You might not even get all of your content tag if the user population is too small. And users in a niche market tend to have a common terminology and structure of the inforamtion space, so a controlled vocabularly could actually help them find, use, and make sense of information.

OK, the above is really a half baked idea and had lots of problems. But blogs let anybody say anything they want anytime, so there you have it.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. Adrian Howard

    “Librarianship is really about organizing information in the head of the long tail curve”

    Hmmm…. I’d actually say the opposite. Every day librarians are dealing with requests from people, and the ones that actually need a librarianship skills are those that sit in the long tail.

    Libraries aren’t oriented around popularity – otherwise they’d be wall to wall best sellers.

    If you’re going to assume that the published information in the world takes on a long tail distribution surely the natural conclusion is that librarians are going to spend their time where the majority of that information lives – in the long tail.

  2. James Kalbach

    Good points.

    Maybe we need to look at this a different way. Let’s just think about the organization systems of librarianship (traditional librarianship, that is), not about librarians themselves.

    A library catalog provides access to information using key points of access: subject, author, title. These are the “hits” in terms of access points. But why can’t I find a music CD in a library by emotion as a facet? Or by occaision? These are “niche” points of acces. (Actually, there’s research showing these two examples are PRIMARY ways people think about types of music, but librarianship completely ignores them).

    And Dewey or LCSH provide terms that are “hits”, or commonly used or accepted terms (at least in theory).

    And I would indeed that libraries are organized around popularity. Collection development practices sort out what’s going to be most useful–and most popular–to the user community. And there are things like the “dusty book report,” where you get a list of resources that have never or rarely been used. You then discard them to make room for new and/or more popular stuff. Unpopular books get weeded out.

    Or maybe it’s the context of use that I’m really trying refer to with this post and with this idea? Sorry for being unclear–I need to work this out better. Yes, I’m making this up as I go along.

    The point I think I want to make, is that IA is about creating a custom information organization solutions, often for a single client. By default, IA most often operates in bounded domains. Librarianship and tools for organizing information in libraries regularly and typically cross domains, even in special libraries. So, the need for IA as a practice grew out of a thickening of the long tail of information spaces, sparked by the advent of the web, that needed attention beyond what librarianship and traditional means of organization could offer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: