DVDs and Libraries

“You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you coulda’ picked up for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

When you don’t have access to a TV, you miss out on a few things: 10 o’clock news, funny infomercials, QVC… (all sorely missed), but access to movies isn’t one of them,” Sara wrote at the Public Humanist earlier this year about online media viewing – I’ve been thinking about a more low-fi model of TV replacement: DVDs from the library.

A study released a few months ago calculates that public libraries outpace Netflix in the amount of DVDs lent out to customers each day.

The Cambridge Public Library has an impressive collection of movies. It’s a far cry from snowy VHS tapes with photocopied covers. The selection rivals Netflix, even if it’s a lot smaller; the CPL has, to name a few:

-LOTs of Criterion collection
-The entire 7up series
-All of Fred Wiseman’s films
-Films from Carnivalesque Films

You can find films by local and international filmmakers, and the selection of documentaries is really good. Granted, this is newly-built and relatively fancy library.

With major budget cuts at major library systems like the Boston Public Library, it might be hard to for librarians to keep pace with the demand. Paying the higher institutional prices for DVDs, (even though I think there can be some flexibility there), and obviously not charging the customers, they aren’t making more money with higher circulation, in the way that Netflix or traditional video store would – it’s all for the noble service of a very DVD-hungry public.

The DVDs themselves get a lot of wear-and-tear. I can imagine a librarian checking in a scratched-up copy of a carefully picked-out, $300 copy of a rare documentary getting frustrated in a way that I just can’t see a Netflix employee – robot? not sure − minding too much about the inventory.

This test program places Redbox rental kiosks at public libraries. The idea is to put a Redbox kiosk right outside the library for people to rent from, easing the pressure on libraries to stock new releases. The library makes a tiny bit of money and doesn’t have to buy 14 copies of Transformers 2; Redbox makes money (more than the library) – everybody wins. The libraries get to save their budgets for material like all of the stuff in the Cambridge Library’s collection.

The idea is pragmatic, but how does it affect a.the principle of providing free information at libraries to allow for an informed public (should “free information” include the supply of almost-unlimited, fast DVDs that people expect from Netflix?), and b. Filmmakers and distributors who might want to sell their DVDs to libraries at higher institutional prices?

Not that I think that all of the rare Swedish films are suddenly going to get trapped inside of Redbox rental kiosks instead of being offered for free, but it’s interesting when sources that are traditionally free-of-charge and government funded get a more privatized. At least as of last year, some libraries are just going with the flow and using Netflix to supply DVDs. I wonder what other methods libraries are using to keep films getting to their customers, other than the traditional library revenue generator: fines. If Redbox takes over the DVD rentals at libraries, they’ll be the ones raking in the late fees instead. A very late copy of a DVD I forgot to watch is making me nervous to go to the library right now, but at least I know the money will go to a good cause!

– Nellie

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