Users upset as costs force Free Library to drop free movie streaming service

Kanopy and Hoopla funds will be redirected to physical branches.

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No more Kanopy or Hoopla access with your library card. As of June 30, the Free Library has ended its partnership with the two streaming platforms, which offered thousands of movies, documentaries, songs, and audiobooks.

Cardholders who used the services are pretty upset — a library blog post about the change was filled with comments from frustrated users.

But the change makes sense, library leadership said, when you consider how many people actually used the platforms compared to their price tag. Together, Kanopy and Hoopla were projected to cost half a million dollars in fiscal year 2022.

The money instead will be redirected to in-person services at branch libraries across the city, interim director Leslie M. Walker told Billy Penn.

“As we prepare to offer more in-person services,” Walker said, “we need to shift back the money that was redirected to our digital resources during the COVID-19 closures.”

Altogether, however, the two streaming services were only used by about 2,000 to 7,000 patrons per month, according to Walker — a fraction of the 26,000 physical borrowers who visit physical branches.

After deep cuts to the library’s budget during the pandemic, advocates pressed for $15 million more than the $43 million originally proposed for this year by Mayor Jim Kenney. It ended up around $51 million, according to City Council documents.

Though they’re a minority of Free Library patrons, the active Kanopy and Hoopla users are still disappointed.

“They are really hurting folks who depend on it,” said Billy Penn reader Steve Ramm, a self-proclaimed movie and documentary film lover. “The only alternate is physical DVDs. Many films [are] not on DVD, and with Kanopy EVERYONE has access.”

The partnerships were introduced to great fanfare in 2017. Kanopy offers 30,000 documentaries and films — including Moonlight, Lady Bird and The Central Park Five. Hoopla is a similar service, but offers audiobooks, ebooks, music and videos.

Some Philly residents had begun relying on the service.

“No hoopla? I used to get college reading material on there,” wrote William Earl-Jerome of North Philly in the library blog post comments. “Audiobooks, Kendrick Lamar albums…smh y’all drawling for canceling that.”

The change will likely impact people who aren’t Free Library of Philadelphia cardholders, too; Pittsburgh’s library directed their patrons to Philly’s system, and the University of Pennsylvania was using the Free Library subscription.

Though it’s free for patrons, each stream costs the library $0.99 to $4.99, which Walker said adds up quickly. To cut costs, The library was already limiting borrowers to 4 titles per month, and had removed childrens’ content.

“What we have learned over these years is that no pay-per-use pricing model is really sustainable for a library,” Walker said. “The more popular the resource becomes, the less we can afford it.”

Other libraries across the country, like Temple University‘s in North Philadelphia and the San Francisco Public Library, are maintain their subscriptions to Kanopy. But the New York, Brooklyn and Queens public library system gave up on Kanopy two years ago because it was too expensive.

The Free Library is keeping two other streaming services that offer some free movies, music and ebooks: Alexander Street Press and Overdrive. There are also physical DVDs and books available that cover some of the same material, Walker said.

Some observed that free streaming access provided incentive for people to get a library card in the first place.

“I am really disappointed to hear this,” commented Katherine Fritz. “Kanopy was a fantastic resource for me to use with my students, and it helped me boost library use by insisting they have a card. I really hope there is a way to place more funding into digital and streaming materials.”


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