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Streaming service offers cardholders a Netflix alternative

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2019 9:48:32 PM
Modified: 4/26/2019 9:48:22 PM

If you don’t immediately think of your local library when you’re on the hunt for a good movie to watch at home, now might be the time to start — especially if your definition of “good” goes deeper than the latest batch of Netflix releases. A growing number of area libraries are offering patrons free access to a huge collection of unconventional movie fare through Kanopy, a film streaming service available only through libraries and universities.

“It really lets people choose the films that they want without a whole lot of extra expense for us,” said Amy Lappin, deputy director of Lebanon Public Libraries, which have been offering Kanopy for about a year. “It’s letting people access all sorts of films that we couldn’t afford to offer.”

Currently partnering with about 4,000 libraries and universities around the country, Kanopy offers some 30,000 titles ranging from esoteric gems and classics to recent films such as Moonlight and Eighth Grade that combine critical acclaim with popular appeal. With an emphasis on enduring and enlightening fare, it has a large cache of documentaries and educational offerings, including instructional films and a global studies series comprising foreign films and culturally thematic movies.

Patrons of libraries that offer the service can sign up for an account using their library cards, then stream as many free movies per month as their library allows. Libraries, which pay for the service at the rate of $2 per view, set the number of movies each patron can watch. That cost may in some cases be offset by a savings in movie purchases — although library staff say their DVD collections remain popular.

The pricing model works well for libraries, staff said, because they’re not investing in items or services that patrons use infrequently or that fade in popularity. “It’s a better use of our taxpayer dollars,” said Pam Smith, head of technical services and systems for Hanover’s Howe Library, which currently caps its views per patron at eight per month.

“In the end, we’re actually paying a lot less,” said Lappin, who set the Lebanon libraries’ cap at 15 per user per month and plans to re-evaluate at the end of the year.

The selection of films is also a big draw for libraries.

“They have a lot of independent films and film festival films that we were previously buying,” Lappin said. “Their classics are pretty good too, and they have a lot documentaries. ... There are also these fun little treasures.”

For example, last December, Lappin tripped across an offbeat collection of old Christmas films in the Kanopy collection. “They were silent films and they were just kind of funky,” she said. “They were definitely not your typical Christmas films.”

In particular, librarians are enthusiastic about the Criterion Collection, which Kanopy offers. Buying and maintaining movies from the Criterion Collection, a purveyor of technically superior editions of movies with lasting cultural value, is an expensive proposition, Howe said. Because the collection is popular with patrons, she’s excited to be able to offer a large selection through Kanopy.

Library staff also like the site’s ease of use and that it gives users three full days to finish watching their selections. The response from patrons has so far been positive, librarians said.

People are especially pleased when they can find a film on Kanopy that they couldn’t find on the shelves, such as PBS’ American Experience series, Smith said.

Usage among Howe Library patrons has been growing steadily, Smith said. To date, patrons have watched about 1,000 movies this year. The two Lebanon libraries are averaging 100 to 125 views per month, Lappin said.

After the Hartland Public Library started offering Kanopy last October, Library Director Nancy Tusinski took note of an interesting phenomenon. “We had quite a few male spouses of library patrons come in and get their own cards,” said Tusinski, who has capped usage at five views per month per cardholder.

In total, Hartland library patrons have been viewing about 65 movies per month through Kanopy, Tusinski said, and that number’s been increasing as word gets out. “I’ve heard patrons recommending it to other patrons while they’re in line checking out books,” she said.

Hartland Public Library is a bit of a pioneer in its adoption of Kanopy. After hearing about the service through library patrons, Tusinski mentioned it to the Hartland Friends of the Library, who offered to fund it for one year, making Hartland’s just the second library in Vermont to offer it (since then a few other Vermont libraries have signed up). If all goes well, Tusinski said, it will go into next year’s budget.

While it lures a few new cardholders, Kanopy doesn’t bring people into libraries. And in an era of declining library usage — just 44 percent of Americans visited their local library in the previous year, according to a 2016 Pew Research study — that could be a concern.

But library staff say services such as Kanopy are compatible with their mission.

“Libraries have always provided information. Information can be in many different formats and has been for years,” said Sean Fleming, director of the Lebanon Public Libraries. “Streaming is just one more format that we’re dedicating resources toward. ... It leads people to value the library because they see us responding to what people want.”

Of course, libraries also serve as community gathering places, particularly in small towns. Tusinski doesn’t view Kanopy as a threat to that mission; she also sees ways the service can enhance community events. She plans to use Kanopy — which comes with public performance rights for all movies in the collection — for movie nights and to incorporate films and film clips into Vermont Reads meetings and other events. The service also offers searchable clips by subject area, a great tool for teachers, she said.

“Libraries throughout history have changed and adapted to what was going on around them,” Tusinski said. “I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at or 603-727-3268.

Valley News

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