Movies, technology, and libraries

home movie projectorI’m dating myself again, but I remember when home movies used 8 mm film. Movies available for sale were 16 mm. The latter were mostly made for educational purposes, so only English classes ever had feature films. I doubt if anyone thought of renting one for home use. Then came the VHS/Beta wars. Soon enough it didn’t matter that VHS had won, because everyone flocked to DVDs. They’ll be gone soon enough, too. So will Blu-ray. It’s not a problem for libraries–at least, not yet

New technology and business

Audio cassettes made it possible for the general public to buy or rent movies to watch at home. Two formats clashed for market domination until, ultimately, VHS won its temporary victory over Betamax.

Everyone who had placed their bets on Betamax now had obsolete equipment and had to go out and buy something else in order to keep watching the latest releases. Business was great for companies that sold VCRs and other equipment that used VHS.

Blockbuster and other companies quickly cashed in on the new ability to watch movies at home. After all, not everyone wanted to buy their own copies unless it was a movie they knew they would watch many times.

With the invention of DVDs, the public quickly turned away from cassettes. They were less bulky. The picture and sound were better. No one had to fuss with rewinding them. In some ways, Blu-ray is even better, although it has never threatened the DVD format.

The new technology was a boon to manufacturers. Blockbuster et al. simply switched their holdings from cassettes to DVDs/Blu-ray and didn’t miss a beat. That is, until Redbox and Netflix offered more convenient delivery systems.

Now, cloud storage and streaming services have begun to catch on. Sales and rentals of any kind of disc are declining rapidly. They will probably disappear eventually.

New technology and libraries

VHS_2_DVD_1Once libraries decided they were no longer only about printed materials, they have collected audiovisual materials in the latest available technologies. As technologies have changed, many libraries have kept much of the older material and the equipment necessary to play it.

Why? Not everything available on videocassette ever got transferred to DVD. Not everything issued on DVD will ever be available through the newer technologies, either. Few enough people want them for them to be commercially viable to transfer to new technology. Enough people want them for them to belong in at least some library collections.

So far, therefore, introduction of new technologies have been expensive both in terms of purchasing new equipment and formats and training staff to use them. They have not had significant impact on ordinary library services and procedures. Whether patrons take out videocassettes or discs, it counts toward the library’s circulation statistics.

As physical objects become obsolete, libraries will still offer the latest technologies to their patrons, but circulation is already taking a hit. Eventually, libraries and the governments or other institutions that fund them will have to agree on a new way to track the effectiveness and usefulness of library services.

Why circulation matters

DVD displayMeasurement of how a library is used and what it does naturally rely on counting things. Libraries keep counts of the number of people who walk in the door or who call on the phone. They count and itemize everything that patrons borrow, including the number of DVDs.

With the catalog, databases, and other information available through the library’s web site, it is no longer necessary for patrons to go to the library physically or call on the phone in order to use library services. Of course, the invention of the telephone caused a similar problem more than a century ago. There are ways to measure the number of people who use the library via computer.

Similarly, when patrons download movies (or other electronic media) using library facilities or view them while in the library, it would seem that that should be covered by statistics.

The situation probably varies from place to place, but Massachusetts does not allow its public libraries to count the use of licensed content in its circulation statistics. The library does not own it. If a contract is canceled, libraries can no longer make that content available.

That makes no sense to me. If a library buys something and then years later weeds it from the collection, patrons no longer have access to that, either. But during the time the library had it, no one questions counting how often it gets used. The fact that no one has looked at it for years, if ever, is one of the factors that justifies getting rid of it in the first place.

But as a top officer in the Pentagon once told an irate colleague of my father, “Aw hell, Doc. It don’t gotta make sense. It’s policy.”

For the short and middle term, it looks like library circulation will not suffer greatly from streaming movies as much as the rental stores do. On the other hand, library administrators are already looking for other measurements of how well they serve the public besides circulation.

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Source: “Media Spotlight: DVD Circ Hold Steady, For Now” by Matt Enis, The Digital Shift.
Photo credits:
DVD display. Some rights reserved by Monterrey Public Library.
Others. Source unknown.


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