or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Watching Movies on Netflix and Copyright Issues

   August 11th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Pull quote from WBUR storyOn my drive to work this morning, I heard a story on the radio on how people are upset about the holes in Netflix's collection.

I've been hearing this same thing from friends, that more and more often lately the movies they want are just not available through Netflix - either as a DVD or streaming. The story attributes this to the changing contracts concerning entertainment producers and online delivery, and a related story also covered broadband issues.

The main thrust of the story seemed to be just informational - sort of, "this is happening, get used to it."

Sadly, they didn't mention public libraries as a resource for DVDs - we have lots of movies and shows not legally available to borrow elsewhere. I left a quick comment on their story:

As a public librarian, I always encourage people to check out their local library's DVD collection. If they don't have what you want, ask your librarian to order it!

I tried not to be glib, but happily, the holes in a library's collection are usually* due just to selection oversights (of which I am guilty) - which is easily remedied by being responsive patron requests.

At least, for now. Copyright battles are raging, as media companies try every tact they can to protect their revenue streams - including changing existing laws, which could affect first sale doctrine and fair use rights.

I don't have any direct links to these issues, but I would encourage everyone to pay attention to the issues the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is tracking, especially those dealing with Intellectual Property. When a copyright-related bill is making its way through Congress, the EFF details what effects it will have, and what action can be taken to protect access to information.

Another great copyright resource to follow is the Copyfight blog - it's not strictly library issues, but it is all about copyright.

Funny how a short story on the radio can have an impact on your entire day.


*In addition to the movies we missed purchasing, another source of holes in the collection is always theft.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/20/11

   March 26th, 2011 Brian Herzog

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse DVD coverI like this question on many levels - but mainly just because I just to use the phrase Library Win.

Round One
One afternoon, a patron called to request a movie titled, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. She said she had already requested it through the library, but she got the wrong one - the one she wanted featured Glenn Ford.

It took a little bit of doing on IMDB, but eventually we identified the right one from all the others. And oddly, IMBD had it listed as The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, instead of spelling out the word "four."

I switched back to the library catalog to locate it, searching on the title with both four/4, and also searching just for Glenn Ford. But from what I could tell, it was nowhere in the consortium.

Next, for librarians in Massachusetts, is to search the statewide Virtual Catalog. I started this search for the title The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Of the five results for that search, one matched both the production studio and original release date - so even though it didn't list the actors, I was fairly confident it was the right one. I requested it for the patron, and told her that since it is coming from outside our consortium, it might take a week or two before it arrives. She had hoped to get is sooner, but was happy that we could find it at all.

Round Two
About two hours later, this same patron called back. She said she had been talking to her daughter, who said that version was available on Netflix - so could I please cancel the library request we just placed, and she'll use Netflix because that will probably be faster. No problem, and I canceled her request.

Round Three
The next morning I had a voicemail from this patron. She said she talked to her daughter again, who said the movie was on long wait in Netflix, so it might take months. In that case, waiting a couple weeks for the library sounded pretty good, so she asked me to rerequest this movie for her.

Library Win
It always makes me happy when libraries can provide better service than businesses - and really, this is the kind of situation where there will almost always be a Library Win. Businesses tend to cater to the new and the sensational, whereas libraries also retain easy access to older items, classics, and items that may only turn over once a year (or less).

This is another danger of HarperCollins' self-destructing ebook plan - it would effectively eliminate this long-tail service (or at least, put a timer on it that is controlled by the publishers, rather than the needs of our communities).

The Irony
I constantly hear about the death of libraries, yet it is a movie with an apocalyptic allusion that we can deliver better than those supposedly bringing about our demise.

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/9/07

   September 15th, 2007 Brian Herzog
WebTV logo & Netflix logo

Helping this patron after she asked the question was straight-forward, but the question itself was kind of interesting (for three reasons).

Patron: I need help with my Netflix account.
Me: Sure, what's the problem?
Patron: Well, I have WebTV at home, and I just signed up for a Netflix account. It worked far enough to allow me to input my credit card number and purchase the account, but it stopped working when I got to the part were I set up my request list. I called their tech support, and they said that yes, the WebTV browser will not work with this part of the Netflix website, and that I should go to my public library. So here I am.

3 Reasons Why This Is Interesting

  1. People still use WebTV?
  2. WebTV does not work with Netflix
  3. WebTV tech support's solution to this computer problem is the library*

The patron and I went over to one of the public computers, logged into her account, and selected a few movies for her to start with. She figured it out pretty quickly, and should be able to do it on her own the next time she comes in.

*Earlier this week I read a Public Libraries article by David Lee King and Michael Porter entitled, "You as Internet Know-It-All". Basically, it explains why it is important for librarians to (at the very least) be familiar with emerging technology and what's popular, regardless of whether or not we use (or even care about) them ourselves.

I liked the article, but the reference question above nicely illustrates the importance of their point: this patron would not have been served well by a librarian who wasn't comfortable with websites, at least somewhat familiar with Netflix**, and willing to explore something new. This is who our patrons are, and we need to be ready for them.

**And for the record, I don't use Netflix myself. I mean, come on; I work in a public library... every movie I'd ever want to see, and no little red envelopes.

david lee king, librarian, libraries, library, michael porter, netflix, public libraries, public library, reference question, webtv, you as internet know-it-all

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  • Hiya. My name is Brian Herzog, and I am, among other things, a reference librarian at a public library in MA, USA. more about me...

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