Local libraries offer movies and other digital content

Hoopla offers free movies, books, music and other digital content

Hoopla offers free movies, books, music and other digital content

by Larry Magid

(This post has been adapted from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News)

I’ve been patronizing libraries since books were mostly hardbound. But now I’m checking out digital content from my local library, including movies, TV shows, ebooks and music.

One service, called Hoopla allows patrons of many libraries around the country to “borrow” media, including ebooks, movies, TV shows, audio books and music. It’s one of several services that offer digital content to library patrons.

The Palo Alto, California library system, for example, also offers access to Safari tech books, IndiFlix film festival movies, and e-books from a variety of sources including Overdrive and Safari. Both Hoopla and Freegal (as in “free and legal”) allow you to stream or download music. You can also access databases that would otherwise cost money such as the New York Times going back to 1851. You can also access local newspapers, medical encyclopedias, business databases and lots more.

Regardless of where you live, there’s a good chance your library offers great resources plus, you may be able to sign-up for a library card in another city, though you may have to visit the library. Not all allow you to sign-up online.

I was particularly interested in Hoopla because I’m a film lover who spends $7.99 a month for Netflix and $99 a year for Amazon Prime, which offers videos, music and free two-day shipping. Hoopla also provides ebooks and audio books along with video and music.

While Hoopla isn’t the place to access brand new Hollywood block busters, it is a great place for independent movies, classics, self-help videos, inspirational programs and other content that you’re not likely to find on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I even found some romantic comedies and other relatively low-brow titles like Sugarland Express and the Lake Effect that suit me just fine when I simply want to be entertained.

It also has an extensive music collection including new and popular titles. I was able to listen to Duran Duran’s new Paper Gods album which became available on Hoopla the day it was released.

What I like most about Hoopla is that you can download media to Android or iOS mobile devices to watch, listen or read while you’re offline. That’s great for those of us who spend a lot of time on airplanes or people who have slow or no Internet access at home.

Folks in that situation could use a public WiFi hotspot at a library or elsewhere to download their books and music to watch and listen from anywhere. Even those of us who have broadband at home and smart phone data plans can take advantage of this by downloading media at home for free and watching or listening to it when away from your WiFi network so as not to use up your expensive mobile data. You can stream Hoopla content on PCs and Macs but you’ll need a mobile device if you want to access them when you’re offline.

There are some catches when it comes to library data services. Like physical media, libraries have to pay for digital services and these services usually come with some limitations. Some services, for example, provide libraries with a limited number of “copies” of digital content so, just like with physical media, if all the copies are checked out, you might have to wait till someone “returns” their copy before you can borrow it.

Hoopla has a different model. There are no limits on how many people can check out a title at any given time but libraries have to pay a fee each time a patron accesses a title so, to control costs, libraries typically limit the number of titles you can check out at a time or during a given week or month. In Palo Alto, for example, you can access 10 titles on Hoopla per card holder per month. But that’s still a lot of content and, if there is more than one library card holder in your family, each person can borrow up to 10 titles.

Borrow, by the way, is the operative word. With most digital content, you have to “return” it after a certain amount of time. But, unlike books and DVDs you don’t have to go back to the library or worry about overdue fines. The media is either automatically deleted or disabled after the borrowing period is over.

Librarians are “constantly trying to make the access more available to patrons,” said Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne, Palo Alto’s library director. But there are budget constraints. She told me that libraries often have to pay considerably more for digital content like ebooks, than do consumers who buy personal copies. That’s the opposite from physical media where libraries often buy at a discount.

One challenge for both the library and its patrons, said le Conge Ziesenhenne, is that there are numerous services and devices which, of course, are constantly changing. She said that Palo Alto libraries provide technical support for patrons — a little like Apple Genius bars only more challenging because, unlike Apple, they have to support products from numerous companies. She told me that there is a website, ReadersFirst.org, for people interested in advocating for better digital access in public libraries