Stepping into the Stream: Bringing Netflix-style Video to Libraries

Streaming video is well established in the consumer market (YouTube has been around since 2005 and Netflix since 2007) but is still gaining momentum in the library market. It’s not yet a huge category—LJ’s Materials Survey included downloadable/streaming movies as a category for the first time in 2013, finding that the responding libraries spent 0.6 percent of their materials budget on downloadable movies, which represented 0.9 percent of their total circulation—but it’s certainly on the rise.

The most popular services are offered by vendors with which librarians—and many patrons—are already familiar: Midwest Tape’s hoopla, OverDrive’s streaming service, Library­Ideas’s Freegal ljx140401webklose1aMovies and Television, and IndieFlix, which is distributed to libraries by Recorded Books.

IndieFlix varies from the other services in that it is a platform for independent films, primarily short features and documentaries, though it also offers longer works. The content has almost always been vetted by film festivals prior to being offered by IndieFlix. Though it has separate consumer and library experiences, the primary difference between them, says CEO Scilla Andreen, is that “there’s no ‘after dark’ content for libraries.” According to Joanne King, director, communications, Queens Library, NY, the “diversity of our patrons was a factor” in the library’s decision to offer the service, since the content comes from all over the world.

The other three platforms offer contemporary and classic movies and television programs, and their holdings vary depending on licensing deals, with more content being added almost daily. Their pricing models vary as well, with hoopla offering simultaneous access on a pay per circulation basis, Freegal and IndieFlix both operating via subscription, and OverDrive supporting both one-copy/one-user and simultaneous access plans.

Striking a balance between profit and access can be a delicate task, but LibraryIdeas’ Brian Downing is reassuring on the subject. “One thing that struck me during the talks with the content providers was how enthusiastic they were about carrying on their relationship with libraries in the digital age. Of course, the licensing landscape is immensely more complicated than the distribution marketplace, but I’ve never seen any lack of willingness on anyone’s part.”

Educating librarians

All of the vendors provide training for library staff, either in person or online, and marketing materials such as posters and bookmarks. Stephanie Anderson, head of readers’ advisory at Darien Library, CT, says, “Our Midwest Tape rep held a staff training session in the library before launch. It has a marketing kit that gave us access to templates and images for our marketing purposes and that also included a set of videos specifically for staff training. It also has a YouTube page you can point patrons to for tech help.”

UPMARKET Connecticut’s Darien Library  promotes the service over specific content

UPMARKET Connecticut’s Darien Library
promotes the service over specific content

Peggy Murphy, acting collection services manager for the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), which subscribes to both hoopla and OverDrive, states that “Hoopla goes out of its way to help us with marketing. The company came down here to the library with a full crew when we were having a meeting of all of our 72 branches and…gave a presentation and did special training so that everyone would really understand how the service worked.” Murphy says that both vendors are “really focusing on helping libraries do a good job.”

David Burleigh from OverDrive explains that his company’s tools for discovery for librarians include signage, bookmarks, fliers, and a banner ad for the library’s site as well as “a streaming video starter kit that’s curated by our team of collection development librarians.” Additionally, ContentWire, the company’s collection development newsletter, features new releases and other highlights on a weekly basis.

Maelynn Foster, marketing communications strategist for the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County, explains that vendors’ marketing staff and library leadership worked together to teach frontline librarians about everything the streaming services had to offer. “We developed job aids for our librarians and provided communications at managers’ meetings about available streaming content,” she says. Also, “ ‘Meet hoopla’ and ‘Meet Freegal’ websites were created to get staff familiar with the services. The web pages included borrowing guidelines, technical requirements, and webinars,” continues Foster. “Staff were provided with simple step-by-step instructions and encouraged to try it out before the launch. We make sure that support resources are available for staff on our intranet.”

Ellen Druda, Internet services librarian, Half Hollow Hills Community Library, NY, says, “Hoopla had two different training videos, and I went to an archived webinar, too. The company gave us a month of just staff use at no cost so we could try it out ourselves before we had to show patrons. There may be training videos on the website for patrons, but, honestly, the product is so easy to use it’s not really necessary.”

Now, says Druda, “We’ve had it open to the public for about a month, and the only question I got from a patron was how to hook up his tablet to his TV so he could watch videos. He contacted hoopla [reps] himself, and they tried to help him, which I thought was nice.”

“I also had a big problem with Internet Explorer 11 and hoopla—they don’t work well together,” opines Druda. “I complained, and shortly after that I saw a message on the hoopla website about the compatibility issue. I don’t know for sure if it was as a result of my complaints, but I was very happy to see that…the staff were responding to a customer/patron problem.”

Educating the patrons

“Library promotion is the greatest challenge,” LibraryIdeas’ Downing says, echoing librarians everywhere. No matter how fabulous and sought-after the content and how warm and efficient the customer service, if patrons don’t know streaming services exist for their use, the services are not doing anyone any good. And for better or worse, Druda explains, marketing streaming services to patrons is not radically different from trying to make them aware of any other library offering: “It’s basically the same problem we have promoting any new service,” she says: “trying to catch their attention and make it relevant to people’s lives.”

Still, there are some methods that are very effective or unique to streaming—or both.

Make the most of technology

Technology and social media promotion, simply put, get results, regardless of which platforms are used. Cincinnati’s Foster says that the library’s Freegal and hoopla “usage numbers always increase two to three times the normal usage right after an e-blast is sent to cardholders.” She adds that Cincinnati also uses “a running digital sign in many of our branches reminding patrons that the services are available.”

Druda says, “We are running a Facebook ad promoting our streaming services. We’ve also got some signs around the building listing the services and a QR code to take [users] to the streaming section of our website.”

Promotion on the library’s homepage is valuable, but it helps to move the content around periodically to spotlight different offerings. Murphy explains that LAPL’s streaming services were the “service of the month when they launched, so for a full month it was on the very front page of the website.”

Recorded Books’ Jim Schmidt adds that because there’s so much to talk about on most library homepages but so little space in which to do it, the company developed “a banner that plays part of a film” to catch the eye of anyone who visits that website. Additionally, “IndieFlix is available to watch through Roku and Xbox, which has changed how people react to the product. As soon as we launched that, usage went up a lot.”

There’s also a passive discovery option for OverDrive users. OverDrive supplies free MARC records, and its new suite of application programming interfaces (APIs) enables integration with a library’s OPAC so that streaming content appears in regular catalog search results, rather than having patrons search for streaming video separately. So, Burleigh explains, “People searching for something in the catalog may find out that there’s a digital movie they can stream from home that they didn’t even know about.” LAPL’s Murphy says there’s brand recognition at work with OverDrive: “Many of our patrons are very used to OverDrive. They go there automatically when they want something…it is a known product to most library patrons.”

Branded IndieFlix channels are an option for libraries that offer that service. Having their own “channel” gives patrons an easy starting point when they start to explore the site. It’s a way to highlight content with local interest or staff picks while expanding the library’s brand. “The branded channels are more popular than genres,” explains IndieFlix’s Andreen. Mid-Continent Public Library in Kansas City, MO, was one of the first to take advantage of this option. Jessica Ford, public relations coordinator at Mid-Continent, says, “To start out, we selected the most popular films on IndieFlix to put into our branded channel, but we are still working with IndieFlix to fully customize the Mid-Continent Public Library channel. In the future, we may have more selections based on what is popular among our staff, customers, or in the general Kansas City area.”

Take advantage of hard-to-find content

Darien Library’s Anderson says that while most of their marketing energy has gone toward the service, rather than specific content within it, “the one specific piece of content I’ve been marketing is BBC’s Northanger Abbey. When we first introduced [hoopla] to staff, we used a screenshot that showed [that] miniseries, and a staff member said, ‘Oh my God! I’ve been wanting to watch Northanger Abbey and Netflix doesn’t ever have it!’ The story helps illustrate that though hoopla doesn’t have the recent blockbusters, it does have a lot of great content that [users] can’t get elsewhere. This is a great selling point with patrons who already use Netflix or another streaming media service.”

Librarians can also take advantage of content that is better suited to streaming than to watching on DVDs, particularly shorter works. Recorded Books’ Schmidt, whose firm distributes IndieFlix to libraries, says that much of the service’s success via streaming is because short-form works “fit in with what people want to watch online,” frequently brief, entertaining videos one can watch in a few minutes of downtime.

Market to new device owners

“We launched [hoopla] right before the holidays and so have often mentioned it to patrons with new devices (especially in our 12/26 program with one-on-one new-device help),” says Darien’s Anderson. “Many of our patrons are still very new to the streaming media concept…. I suppose that is technically a challenge, but I’ve seen it as a great opportunity to teach patrons about a technological advance that many have avoided up until now because they find it confusing. Having the tangible example of hoopla on their device makes the idea of ‘streaming’ much easier to understand,” she says.

Have fun with it!

IndieFlix’s Andreen described her company’s Film Festival in a Box (pictured on p. 46) as “a way for us to work with libraries to get people into the library for offline experiences.” The “festival” includes a DVD with four shorts grouped by genre (casting sharper hooks than the usual BISAC subject headings, these might be something such as Powered by Girls, Adrenaline, or Dark Comedies), the total playing time of which is about 45 minutes. After watching all of the shorts, the group can deliberate and vote on awards such as Best Picture, Best Performance, and Best Original Story. IndieFlix also works with libraries to set up screenings of its exclusive content, such as the documentaries Finding Kind and The Empowerment Project. IndieFlix is also developing a festival library program to run in conjunction with film festivals, whereby filmmakers who are presenting their work at festivals will also appear at local library screenings of their films.

Darien Library officially launched hoopla with a hula hoop contest. Erin Shea, head of adult programming and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, organized the contest into three age groups: 5-8, 9-12, and 12+. “I bought some weighted exercise hoops from Walmart in case the adults would like to use those and our children’s library already had some for kids. I was surprised and delighted to see that some competitors brought their own hoops. One adult even thought it was a meet-up for other hula hoop enthusiasts! Luckily, when I explained to her about the hoopla service, she was very excited to hear about it.” While the contest was going on and staff were timing contestants, other staff members were demoing the service on iPads, a laptop, and a cell phone. Shea says, “It was a great thing for the caregivers to do while they waited for their child to finish hooping.”

Thematic promotions for holidays are fun for patrons but can also be a useful way for staff to explore and become familiar with the catalogs. Cincinnati’s Foster had success with a “scary movie tie-in at Halloween,” but imagine the possibilities for Do a Grouch a Favor Day (February 16), National Pet Memorial Day (September 14), or Look Alike Day (April 20).

In order to promote streaming better, LAPL’s Murphy wishes “we had the money to have advertising on the sides of buses and in airports and in train stations and on bus stop benches….”

Despite the wealth of marketing options, the bigger challenge is always, as Murphy explains, “to reach the people whom we haven’t reached yet, the people who have no idea what we have, or the people who are streamlined into thinking that the library only has the one thing they use it for and don’t realize we have all these other things.”

Most Popular Streaming Downloads

Looking at some of the sites’ most in-demand offerings gives a sense of the range of content available to patrons.


Beyoncé concert videos; Chinatown; Stardust; Where Angels Fear To Tread; High Noon

LEGO: The Adventures of Clutch Powers; Twelve Years a Slave: Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey; To Kill a Mockingbird; Babe; 2 Fast 2 Furious

Portlandia; Busy World of Richard Scarry; Nosferatu; The Rage in Placid Lake; Richard Simmons workout videos

Bit Players; Living on One Dollar; Bargain; Weightless; Exhibit A

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Stephanie Klose About Stephanie Klose

Stephanie Klose (, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.


  1. The Funster says:

    wow, great post. With the explosion over the years of social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc.) it was only a matter of time before streaming video took on more attention as well. With many of the new services local libraries are now offering, streaming video has to be included in their offering package so-to-speak. For instance, what if you were doing a paper say on movies of the 50’s and their cultural impact? Wouldn’t it be great to go to your local library and look at some old James Dean movies for reference? Anyway, really enjoyed your write up.