Essex County libraries catching up with the digital age

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Windsor Star/Don Lajoie

Imagine that your musty old neighbourhood library sprouted 10 more floors and several new wings of audio books, music and movies, and offered more variety in art and entertainment than a big-box department store.

In essence, that’s what’s going to happen Monday when the Essex County Library begins offering a new service that will give library card holders free online and mobile device access to untold numbers of movies, TV shows, music and audio books through its newly installed Hoopla digital service. The service will give patrons access to on-demand content free on smartphones, tablets and personal computers.

“There will be no waiting lists, no need to put things on hold,” said chief librarian Janet Woodbridge. “Theoretically, everyone in Essex could borrow the same movie at the same time. That’s the benefit of Hoopla Digital.”

Woodbridge said Essex joins the Windsor Public Library System, which offered the service last year, and Edmonton in pioneering the service in Canada. The only hold up in the county, she said, was determining whether enough bandwidth was available to accommodate the service.

Once it was determined that there was, the library decided to introduce Hoopla as a brand new service to kick off the new year and attract new patrons.

“We’ve had very, very positive feedback from libraries that do offer it,” said Woodbridge, who added the library has budgeted $25,000 for the service. “We already have had digital music and other things. In the first six months of 2013, we saw a 54 per cent increase in downloaded music and e-books. So this kind of service is increasing exponentially every year. We were the first library in the world to offer digital comic books in 2013.”

It’s similar to Netflix. Through an app on a tablet or a browser on a personal computer, users can scan through a wide-ranging variety of films and click on their selections to “borrow” them. The content begins streaming. All that is needed is a library card, still free of charge,  and a pin number. Big bonus, there are no “overdue” hassles. The material is returned automatically.

Woodbridge said these kinds of services are likely to radically transform how libraries operate.

“We could never afford to purchase single copies of all the material on Hoopla,” she said. “Now we will give the public access to material we might not ordinarily provide. It broadens our ability to meet the tastes of everyone. It’s good for people who have eclectic tastes. You just get an app and start downloading. It’s a very simple process. But we’ll have cheat sheets available. “

Woodbridge said it’s hoped that libraries attract more visitors and members.

“We’d like to see this bring more people into the library,” she said. “It should be everyone’s new year’s resolution to get a library card. We have to communicate how much more we have to offer.”

Jeff Jankowski, founder and owner of Hoopla, based in Ohio, said the service now offers 100,000 music albums, 10,000 audio books and 10,000 movies and television shows, 80 per cent of which are not available on competitors like Netflix, including educational content and such suppliers as National Geographic and PBS, Universal Music and 50 to 60 other suppliers. The company is looking to add more.

He added it is all designed to meet the desires of today’s entertainment consumers who want to be able to view whatever they want to watch, whenever they want to see it.

“There are no lines, no reserves,” he said. “You can throw it out the window. It makes the entire library available to everyone, 24/7.”

He confirmed that Windsor and Essex County, along with Edmonton and Hamilton, have pioneered the service in Canada. Toronto will be added in March. But the company is growing fast. Jankowski said Hoopla has 100 libraries signed up but expects to have 1,000 within a year.

The company, Midwest Tape, LLC, with 350 employees and 50 contractors, recently added Los Angeles and Seattle to its roster, along with several other U.S. cities.

“We’re just getting started,” Jankowski said.