The Current State of Streaming at LMU Library

Today’s post is written by Glenn Johnson-Grau, Head of Acquisitions & Collection Development for the William H. Hannon Library. 

Netflix. Hulu. Amazon Prime. Disney+ (coming soon). Streaming video services for consumers are everywhere and offer subscribers thousands of options on demand. While there is often greater quantity than quality, we as consumers pay to be able to have lots of options to watch a comedy or a drama at our convenience.

What we do not get with our streaming video subscription is a guarantee that a specific film will be available to watch at some date in the future. Libraries, on the other hand, build collections to be accessible today, tomorrow, and years from now; and since electronic access means the item cannot be lost or damaged, we expect it to be ready when we want it.

This divergence between expectations in the consumer world and the library world is one of several challenges the William H. Hannon Library faces related to streaming video. This issue came to the attention of many library users when in January 2019 we changed the way we provide access to one service in particular: Kanopy.

What is Kanopy?

Kanopy is a streaming video service for libraries that is not available for individual subscribers. Kanopy’s original area of specialization was in educational films and documentaries, although now they also offer many feature films that are just as likely to be watched for fun as to be assigned in a class. With more than 30,000 titles, there is something for everyone and, unlike Netflix, it is free!

Okay, it is not really free. While it is free to library users, Kanopy is far from free for the library. Kanopy’s pricing model includes free views that trigger a purchase when they reach a certain level of use, a model common with library e-book collections. When it reaches that trigger point, the library is billed for the film for a one-year license. After a year, the process repeats and the same film may be triggered again. Episodes of series count as one film each, so The Civil War by director Ken Burns counts as nine Kanopy titles.

The library also owns The Civil War on DVD, which we purchased for less than the cost of one episode on Kanopy and since it was a purchase, it was a one-time cost. The tradeoff is we purchased a physical disc that must be checked out from the library and played on a device, this in an era when most new computers do not include a DVD or Blu-ray player, so most students to not have access to a player (except in the library).

Reducing Costs while Maintaining Access

When in the spring of 2019 our costs for Kanopy looked certain to double again for the fourth year in a row, we made the decision to turn off access to most of the Kanopy content that we had not already licensed. Although we tried to communicate this across campus, we did cause some users distress when films that had previously been available were not any longer.

To compensate for trimming Kanopy, we have expanded access to other streaming media sources. We initiated a subscription to Films on Demand, a collection of over 30,000 educational and documentary films – including PBS collections and Florentine Films titles like The Civil War. This year we also expanded our collection from Swank, a film aggregator that specializes in feature films.

For users of our video collections, particularly faculty, we will do everything we can to make the films you need available when you want them. We will buy DVDs for in class viewing, subscribe to streaming media collections, and, yes, license from Kanopy when we need to. What we ask of you is to be mindful that the landscape is in flux and, just like at home, access one day does not guarantee access in the future. Make requests as early as you can by using our order forms, share your syllabi with us, and otherwise let us know what you need and when. We will do our best to meet those requests.

For students, check the library catalog to search the tens of thousands of films we have available. If your professor requires you to watch a film that we do not offer, ask them to let us know so we can acquire it. And if you are a film buff who just wants to watch good movies, in some cases you may need to use the DVD or Blu-ray that the library owns. It may be less convenient, but the sound and image quality are usually much better. Moreover, you can rest assured we will still have access to that film next year.

The library must continually balance and reevaluate how we provide access for our users, weighing such issues as streaming versus physical items, one-time purchases versus annual subscriptions, and convenience versus cost. We are currently in a transitional period, but we anticipate the next few years will begin to settle some of the uncertainty about streaming media as academic libraries, and the vendors we rely upon to supply our resources, resolve some of these issues to allow us to sustainably meet the needs of our users.

Further Reading

Cagle, Chris. (2019). Kanopy: Not Just Like Netflix, and Not Free. Film Quarterly.