First, it was libraries using Netflix to get DVDs to library patrons that they libraries were too cheap to buy for themselves. Now it’s libraries trying to be like Netflix. Well, at least one library in California, according to this LJ article.
The Hayward Public Library now has a “three-tier subscription plan” that “allows users to pay a monthly, automated fee in exchange for taking out items on an ‘endless loan.’ For $2.99, three items can be borrowed; for $4.99, five items; for $8.99, ten items.”
Woohoo, what a deal! Or maybe it’s not. For one thing, the selection is nothing like Netflix’s. The library currently has about 9,400 videos. Netflix has tens of thousands of DVD titles. For $9.99/ month subscribers can get one DVD out at a time plus access to the 10,000+ titles available streaming through Netflix Instant. I doubt the library offers streaming video.
Supposedly, it was created a year ago as “a way to alleviate the burden of unresolved fines that was prohibiting about 20 percent of the library’s 100,000 cardholders from borrowing material.” 20%! That seems like a lot of people who can’t use the library because their fines are too high.
The director thought it was a good way to bring lapsed users back to the library. Forgiving fines might have been a better way, because after a year “only a handful of patrons have signed up.” This plan is trying to get money from people who have already shown that they would rather do without library services than pay their fines.
Just doing the math, this library plan doesn’t sound like it’s a good idea. Maybe that’s why hardly anyone has subscribed. Netflix sends DVDs straight to your door and streaming video straight to your computer or television. The library still makes people come in and get videos from a small selection.
So for people who can’t do the math, and who already give up library services to avoid paying fines, it seems unlikely they’d subscribe to this service. And for people who can do the math, it makes much more financial sense to give their money to Netflix. They can still use the library for as many videos as they want because they return items on time.
The headline of the article notes that the program is languishing, and it’s hardly a surprise. It’s not a plan that provides good or innovative service to library users. Instead, it’s designed to get people who don’t pay fines to pay fines before they even check anything out. If they don’t pay them after the fact, why would they pay them before the fact?
The director claims to think that the plan isn’t popular because it’s “ahead of the curve,” but it seems to me that it’s behind the curve. It’s asking people to give money to the library for services that private companies already provide for a better value, and services which the library should either provide for “free” or not at all.
The people with the fines are still paying taxes to support the library, even though they aren’t allowed to use it because of the fines. If the goal isn’t to generate profit, which the director admits, then why not abolish fines altogether, as many libraries have done. The library could still be protected from loss by then billing patrons with severely overdue items for the cost of the item plus processing.
Or the library could do what another California library is doing, accepting food in lieu of fines, which it then donates to the local food bank.
There are various ways to handle this without charging people for something they already pay for. This gets rid of the only incentive to borrow the scratched, sticky DVDs from the public library.
Though this program seems to have been created out of desperation, I wonder if some other library will pick it up and try to promote it as an innovative service. That would be both amusing and sad. No library is going to be able to compete with Netflix, especially when all video is streaming video, which isn’t that far away.
Maybe it would be better for libraries to get out of the entertainment business altogether before they’re forced out by new technology and superior service models. Then they could figure out what they might actually do better than the private sector instead of trying to compete with it.