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I noticed the other day that someone was mad at the New York Public Library for dropping Kanopy, a film streaming service. My response was “yeah, libraries are dropping it all over the place because its freaking expensive.” (The Brooklyn and Queens PLs, which are separate from NYPL, are also dropping the service.) My next thought was “and dear lord, we have been here before, so many times.” But before I could put that into words, my respected colleague and friend @LibSkrat beat me to it with some pointed commentary.

To recap: Kanopy is one of the vendors libraries turn to for bundled content, in this case films. The more people get used to streaming at home, the more libraries feel they have to provide it, too, but it’s very expensive, the invoices keep streaming in along with the video, and what you get the bundle, which may not be the videos your community actually wants to see. (Sound familiar?) Behind all this are the creators, distributors, and other middle-folk who want their piece of the action and can pull content out without warning, as well as the investors – a private equity firm invested in Kanopy recently, and they tend to want their profits. In an academic library environment, this makes it tricky when you have to pay again and again for the ability to stream a video that a faculty member uses in a course taught every other year – and then might have that video drop out of the package without warning. Public library users have different concerns, but generally films, like books and journal articles, are fairly non-substitutable.

What kicked up all the ruckus wasn’t just that a library was dropping a bundle of digital stuff it could no longer afford, but the way library users found out about it. They got an email from Kanopy, personally addressed to them by name, to express how disappointed the company was. It’s creepy and wrong for vendors to use patron information (the privacy of which is often protected by law) to essentially make a sneaky sales pitch. Additionally, the end users don’t know how much things cost, and many library licenses include a non-disclosure clause. (Follow the University of Virginia’s lead and strike them out – they are unacceptable.)

Even if the information is not deliberately concealed, it’s not widely known. Kanopy charges a fee if so little as 30 seconds of a film is viewed, and if three patrons watch a film it, it triggers a bill of around $150. For one year. Then you start over. Even if few people use the service – NYPL estimates only 1 percent of their patrons have – the costs add up. In contrast, a library can purchase copies of films on DVD and share them without extra fees tacked on. Owning a physical copy comes with more rights than a license conveys, but libraries have a habit of assuming they will become instantly irrelevant if they don’t sign on for digital deals.  

We’ve done this so, so many times. A vendor offers a package that seems pretty good. Wow, that’s a lot of content! And that one-size-fits-all approach sure saves time, not having to match content to your users’ interests. Then people get used to the convenience and it’s hard to pull the plug when the price goes up. And up. And up.

People who pay ten bucks for an ebook beach read and drop 9 bucks a month for Netflix don’t know that the beach read borrowed for free from a library costs the library many times more than a hardcover, can only be used by one person at a time, and has to be paid for again after it has been borrowed a couple of dozen times. They don’t know that video streaming isn’t like Netflix and isn’t free after all.

My advice for library users is don’t yell at libraries if they have to drop a service. It’s not their fault, and arguing that we should just give them more money doesn’t solve the always-rising cost problem. For librarians, my advice is to resist the shiny and trust we are relevant, to value the rights we traditionally have when we purchase content, and push for transparency and fairness in licensing deals. I know, we do – but somehow, we keep falling for the same schtick. 



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