Library system expands online offerings

Embracing technology of entertainment world part of library mission

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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To sign up for digital services, click here, then on the “Books and eContent” category.

Information on how to use each service is available through the site.

Materials can be accessed from the web, and also from a collection of downloadable apps that includes Freegal Movies and Television, Hoopla, Freegal Music, Zinio, Overdrive and Blio (the host for the Access 360 service).

Many people, when they think of a library, think of the wood- and dust-scented formality of a place where they once did research as students.

As a public library, the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District is a place for research, but it's also a lot more — and it's expanding even further to meet the demands of an increasingly digital world.

Today the system broadens its line of electronic resources by launching two new video and TV streaming services that will add to its online selection of music, magazines and books, said Melinda Chesbro, the district's collection and technical services director.

"I'm hoping that with a more well-rounded suite of services we'll get more people using our (cellphone, iPad and Android app) based products," Chesbro said. "This is a new push for us in that we're offering video products on a much larger scale."

The two movie and TV streaming services, Hoopla and Freegal Movies and Television, offer thousands of films and shows on demand for free to library card holders.

"Both of them are aiming to be similar to Netflix for the library market," Chesbro said. "They won't be competitive with Netflix for new movies; their products are a little older than that. But they both still have a good range and selection."

It might seem odd for libraries to offer entertainment products like new music and movies, but that's actually part of the public library mission, Chesbro said.

"What is a library now? That's an interesting question," she said. "A lot of people are accustomed to their school library. But public libraries have always been a little different in scope. What's the balance between research and entertainment? As a public library we want to help you have a more well-rounded life, and I think entertainment is part of that."

There's a lot of entertainment to be had, as well as educational products, in the library's growing collection of online materials. Some people only go to the library to get a card, then use it to check out online products exclusively from home, she said.

"We have a fairly full suite of things so that if you only want to use us online, we can accommodate that," Chesbro said. "But we also have DVDs and other items in the library so people who don't have high-speed Internet can also have access to the materials."

Along with the two video services, the library is expanding other existing services, with more access to music and audio books.

Freegal Music, which the library has offered for about two years, just added a service allowing up to three hours of free online streaming a day, and the library is increasing its download limit from three songs to five per week.

"You can actually download and keep those songs, but with the added streaming you can also listen to anything from their catalog online for three hours a day," Chesbro said.

The service has a catalog of more than 6 million songs, including many top-10 hits, classics and a wide array of other styles.

Hoopla's music service, which is also new to the library, lets card holders check out full albums for up to seven days and audio books for 21 days.

People can check out up to 12 titles -- movies, albums or audio books -- a month online.

"Music is one of the real strengths of our platform," said Brandon Richardson, the regional account manager for Midwest Tape, which owns Hoopla. "We have about 80 percent of all North American trade content available."

The content includes new albums on the Billboard charts from artists such as Katy Perry, Eminem and Jay-Z, along with blues, classic rock, classical and other offerings. When checked out, an album can be played on any device associated with a person's library card.

In addition to the Hoopla checkouts, library users can also watch as many as three movies or TV shows on Freegal Movies and Television per week, with each item available to stream for 48 hours.

"The way I often explain our company to people is that libraries are a place to go to, but more and more these days the website has become their digital branch," said Brian Downing, CEO of Library Ideas LLC, which owns Freegal. "So we help libraries stock their online shelves. We license content, build sites, deliver services. We have 4,000 library customers in 22 countries right now."

Generally, videos on the two services run about 18 months behind the new-release market, Richardson said.

The library district has had great success with the two e-book lending services it launched in May 2012, called Overdrive and Access 360, Chesbro said.

People can check out up to five books at a time from each of those services and download them to their Kindle, iPad or other readers.

There's also a magazine service called Zinio, which lets library card holders select and download an unlimited number of magazines, with new and back issues available for magazines such as Discover, The Economist, Yoga Journal and The Hockey News.

"We did those about a year ago, and people are either lukewarm to them or they love them," Chesbro said of the magazines. "The setup is a little hard, because you have to log in through the library to choose what you want, but once you check out a magazine you have it for as long as it's available to us."

The library pays for the array of online products through several systems.

For Zinio, it pays a flat fee plus subscription fees for unlimited use of magazines. For Freegal Music, it pays a flat fee that allows downloads and streaming use. For Hoopla, the library pays a set fee each time somebody streams a video.

The set fee per video model is somewhat new to the library, but Chesbro said she can ratchet the checkout limit up or down depending on how much use it gets.

"The Seattle Public Library tested it and had great success with it," Chesbro said. "And I feel like we're in a place where we can run both Freegal Movies and Hoopla."

The library also buys e-books for its lending services, and each book has a set number of checkouts allowed under those fees.

Keeping the selection balanced with new services and products can be a constant challenge, but Chesbro said she thinks the new video and music selections will help make the online version of the library a broader place that will draw in more users.

"We want to at least be a little cool," Chesbro said. "We don't want to be frivolous with our offerings, but we want to have something for everyone."