Stream Movies for Free – With a Library Card (But Don’t Cancel Netflix Just Yet)

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By the end of the year, patrons of 100 library systems around the U.S. are expected to be able to stream thousands of videos for free. Music albums and ebooks too, with no waitlists to worry about.

Over the last few months, public libraries around the country have been testing out a service called Hoopla, a media streaming service that charges libraries each time a patron checks out a video, e-book, or music album. The per-circulation fee paid by libraries ranges from 99¢ to $2.99, and thus far, libraries seem quite pleased with the service. “It’s really slick and definitely meets the standards of what people expect from an app,” Kirk Blankenship, electronic resources librarian at the Seattle Public Library, told Library Journal in April, when Hoopla was in beta testing stage. “We’re really happy with how it’s rolling out.”

Now, reports the Seattle Times, the Seattle Public Library is officially launching Hoopla as an option for patrons, who can stream media including 10,000 videos (for three days at a time) and 250,000 music albums (seven days’ access) after they’ve signed up for an account at Hoopla. Materials are checked out at the Hoopla site using one’s library account number, at no charge to the patron.

What really sets Hoopla apart from other digital media available via library accounts is that there is no limit on how many copies of a video or ebook can be loaned out. Normally, a library has a limited number of ebooks available, and once they’re checked out, other patrons have to wait for the loan period to expire. The result is often long wait lists for popular titles. With Hoopla, which is owned by Midwest Tapes, an Ohio company known for providing physical CDs and DVDs to libraries, on-demand content can be streamed by an unlimited number of patrons. It looks like individual libraries will, however, put a limit on how many titles members can borrow; eight titles per month is the maximum at the library in Columbus, Ohio, for instance.

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In addition to Columbus and Seattle, libraries in places such as Los Angeles, Toledo, and California‘s Orange County have made Hoopla available to members. By the end of 2013, Hoopla says its services will be available via 100 library systems in the U.S.

The streaming option is expanding at a desperate time for many libraries. According to the American Library Association, 57% of public libraries reported that their operating budgets remained flat or decreased last year. In order to avoid raising taxes in the Miami area, for example, officials had considered closing down as many as 42 libraries, the Miami Herald reported, before settling on 22 that would likely be shuttered. “People have said that the age of the library is probably ending,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said to a local TV station as a justification for the closures.

At the same time, however, surveys show that Americans feel that libraries remain critical. More than three-quarters of Americans participating in a Pew Research Center poll said that borrowing books, reference librarian services, and free access to computers and the Internet were all “very important.” Increasingly, digital services are important for libraries; 60% reported a rise in use of library computers last year, and 76% of libraries said they offered ebooks in 2012, a 9% increase from the previous year.

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While Hoopla’s streaming services will surely prove popular with library patrons, it’s certainly no Netflix killer. “As you’d probably expect, you won’t find many new movies and TV shows here; the selection isn’t as current as Netflix Watch Instantly or Amazon Prime Instant Video, which isn’t surprising since, well, it’s a service for public libraries and it’s free for patrons,” a Gigaom post summed up.

Hoopla plays up the fact that 80% of its catalog is not available on Netflix, including plenty of educational videos (SAT prep and such) that make sense for library clientele. The company has plans to add 5,000 new titles in the near future, and to also make its app work on connected TVs.