Like most persons around the world and throughout history, public library users like audiovisual materials. Videos currently accounts for about 6% of U.S. public library items and 30% of U.S. public library item circulation. From 1985 to 2004, library video circulation grew much faster than commercial video circulation. Library video borrowing currently equals about 20% of commercial video rental.
Libraries’ video circulation has recently gained greater public attention. On July 29, 2010, Techmeme featured from Yahoo News a story entitled, “Libraries top Netflix, Redbox when it comes to loaning DVDs.” A day later NPR had the story, “Libraries Top Netflix In DVD Rentals.” The Huffington Post, Gizmodo, the LA Times, the Seattle Weekly, and many other news and information sources ran similar stories that same day. All these stories seem to be ultimately based on a story in the Hartford Courant on July 26, 2010. That story was entitled, “Study: Libraries Top The Competition In Lending Movies.”
The Hartford Courant’s story led off with this statement:
Red boxes, red envelopes and the blue and yellow Blockbuster stores may dominate the movie rental landscape, but according to a recent survey, when Americans want to watch a DVD, they are most likely to turn to their local library.
Some clarifications and comments:
- Public library video borrowing in 2010 equals about 20% of commercial video rentals, or about 17% of total video borrowing/rentals. Libraries tend to lag commercial video rental services in video media technology. Hence library video borrowings likely consist of a higher share of VHS tapes and a lower share of Blu-Ray discs and online streamed movies compared to commercial video rental services. But even if all library video borrowing were DVDs and only half of commercial video rentals were DVDs, library DVD borrowing would not exceed commercial DVD rentals.
- The cited OCLC survey shows that public libraries DVD circulation is less than Netflix’s DVD rentals. This OCLC work is entitled “How Libraries Stack Up: 2010.” It is actually a two-page presentation of graphics. The relevant graphic shows “U.S. public libraries 2.1 million DVDs borrowed [every day],” “Netflix 2.2 million DVDs rented [every day].” All the stories dropped the decimal part of the Netflix figure and instead describe it as “2 million.” Then they reported that figure as less than public libraries’ “2.1 million” DVDs borrowed. Thus reporting of the survey figures apparently has been distorted to achieve a sensational headline.
- All public libraries considered together have about eleven times as many registered borrowers as Netflix has subscribers in mid-2010. This difference is highly relevant to the comparison of all public libraries to Netflix. None of the articles mention this highly relevant aspect of that conceptually awkward comparison.
- Competition isn’t the most interesting aspect of the relationship between public libraries and commercial video rental services. Libraries have co-existed for years with commercial book rental businesses and commercial video rental businesses. Libraries illustrate that diverse organizational forms and operational models can co-exist long-term.
- The Hartford Courant’s story, “Study: Libraries Top The Competition In Lending Movies,” and the stories and posts echoing it, do not encourage studying further the issues reported. With the exception of a few blog posts, none links to the OCLC presentation. None links to a major source of U.S. library statistics. None provides enough well-organized data to support non-tendentious analysis and consideration of alternative questions. Studying and thinking takes effort. Few persons seem to be interested in doing it. That’s not surprising.
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 The OCLC graphic is a pie chart. It consistes of three slices forming the whole pie. These slices are: “U.S. public libraries 2.1 million DVDs borrowed [every day],” “Netflix 2.2 million DVDs rented [every day],” and “RedBox vending 1.1 million DVDs rented [every day].” Many other commercial rental sources for DVDs exist, but are not included in the pie. Thus the whole pie isn’t baked from any conceptually meaningful recipe. Put differently, the size of public libraries’ slice of the pie has no relation to the fact that public libraries account for about 17% of video borrowing and rentals.
 Hartford Courant’s story also did not accurately report the OCLC’s figure for Redbox rentals. The OCLC’s graphic show 1.1 million Redbox rentals per day, while the Hartford Courant’s story reported 1.4 million per day.