British Columbia

Libraries add streaming services to bridge digital divide

"This is just one of the parts that we're working on to make sure our community is able to participate fully in society."

As services like Netflix become more popular, public libraries aim to increase accessibility

As streaming services like Netflix become more popular, the public library is stepping in to find a way to make this content available for patrons. (AFP/Getty Images / Jonathan Nackstrand)

In a bid to make must-see entertainment content available for all, public libraries are finding more ways to provide access to streaming services. 

The West Vancouver Memorial Library, for example, is one of the few libraries in B.C. that offer patrons access to Netflix.   

Sarah Felkar, head of technology at the library, said the goal of the program is to ensure everyone has access to the latest forms of entertainment and cultural content.

Demand for streaming services is on the rise. In Canada, services like Netflix are poised to be more popular than cable TV, with one report forecasting more than 10 million Canadians will be signed up with streaming services by the year 2020.

But the jump to digital content comes at a time when many Canadians are falling behind when it comes to internet access.

Recent studies have found remote and on-reserve Indigenous communities, refugees and new immigrant families are underserved when it comes to digital access

"We're trying to continue our mission of providing access to information and enabling an inclusive society," Felkar said.

So much of the new entertainment content originates on digital channels, such as Netflix, Felkar said.

Providing access to Netflix allows patrons "to participate in those conversations about that hot new comedy special or that new season of a show that may or may not ever make it in a physical format," she said. 

"This is just one of the parts that we're working on to make sure our community is able to participate fully in society."

'Bit of a shift happening'

Felkar said the library has to make strategic decisions to make sure people's needs are being served.

"We need to continue to support DVDs and CDs and books, but we are also aware that there is a bit of a shift happening and so we have to find ways to invest in streaming video, in e-books, in audiobooks and all those other formats as our communities decide what formats work best for them," she said.

Public libraries across the country offer free internet to people who otherwise could not access it. (Temiskaming Shores Public Library)

The West Vancouver library system negotiated the deal with Netflix two years ago, and as a relatively smaller branch, it was able to acquire a streaming licence with the content giant for a reasonable price.

It has four tablets that have one Netflix account locked onto the device, Felkar said. No one else can have access to that Netflix account when the tablet is lent out. 

"If they have an internet connection, they can watch content at home. And if they don't have an internet connection, we can also show them [how they] can download some [offline content]."

Balancing content

Price remains a big consideration when it comes to libraries providing streaming content — especially for bigger branches. 

The Toronto Public Library, for example, started offering the streaming service Kanopy earlier this year, but users are limited to eight titles per month. 

The Vancouver Public Library offers a different streaming service called IndieFlix but had to withdraw from another product, Criterion, after it stopped licensing to the public library earlier this year.

Kay Cahill, with the collections and technology department at Vancouver Public Library, says there are challenges with some of the streaming products that offer popular content. 

"Quite a few of them offer a cost-per-stream model, which isn't sustainable for a public library with a limited collections budget," Cahill said.

"As soon as it gets to a certain popularity level, you start spending so much money you compromise your ability to purchase in other areas."

Still need to offer other mediums

The other consideration is ensuring libraries can still offer content in all of the other formats people use: books, e-books, audiobooks, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray. 

"We always try to be conscious that not everyone has the means to access content in all of the different formats," Cahill said.

Libraries are finding ways to balance newer offerings like online, digital products with traditional offerings like books. (Caroline Morneau/CBC)