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David Lee King

Adapting the Netflix Model to Libraries



Michael Porter (libraryman) has been talking about Netflix and fee-based services. It’s good stuff – go read and think! That’s what I did, hence this post… here’s my off-the-cuff thinking about the Netflix model and charging patrons for value-added services.

This can work just like a web 2.0 company’s services. Let’s use Flickr as an example: Flickr’s basic service is free, but to become a “pro” member, you’re charged $24.95 per year. Lots of users never mess with the Pro part, and use the free service happily; others start out with the free service, and then decide to upgrade to the pro, fee-based service for ease-of-use, more bells and whistles, more storage space, etc. So there’s a definite tiered, free-to-fee approach to their services.

Now let’s combine that tiered model with the Netflix/library thing… let’s allow patrons to check out videos for free (we already do this). Even place holds on them (again, we already do this). But then let’s jump a little off the deep end and offer an upgraded, “extreme movie addict” service that’s fee-based: if you pay a paltry fee, you’re entitled to services the “free” patrons can’t get, like:

  • weighted holds, so you’re first in line for videos
  • mail or courier delivery of videos to your door
  • a cool newsletter/blog/email that provides stuff others can’t get (hmm… things like tickets to early screenings [need to work with community here], maybe invitations to a celebrity event, etc)
  • personalized movie advisory guide – the “if you liked this movie, you’ll like…” type of service – but focused on the individual, fee-based customers
  • ahem … a Friends of the Library membership…
  • etc

The idea here is that:

  1. the fee would help pay for the added service
  2. this community-based version of a Netflix-like model would be friendly, personalized, and close to home – therefore more desirable than Netflix, et al.
  3. the normal, friendly, and free library service wouldn’t change – you’d just charge extra for the value-added, personalized, bells-and-whistles service

And now, let’s jump off the high dive – let’s not stop at videos. How about the rest of our content? What can we do to add some personalized, desirable, bells-and-whistles services to the rest of the library? Home book delivery? Emails from a friendly librarian telling me there’s a cool new fantasy novel out, and it’s already been placed on hold just for me (because I pay $25 a year for the service)?

So… am I off my rocker here? Let me know!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://walt.lishost.org/ walt

    “the normal, friendly, and free library service wouldn’t change – you’d just charge extra for the value-added, personalized, bells-and-whistles service”

    That’s one of the flies in the “charging for superior service” ointment–it sounds good, but there’s a natural tendency for tiered service to result in degradation of the free/lowest tier over time. Particularly if funding agencies see a chance to save some bucks by assuming that the people who Really Want Library Services will cough up for them individually. Which then results in the library largely abandoning its role as a resource of last resort.

    Can that be avoided? Tough to say.

  • http://walt.lishost.org walt

    “the normal, friendly, and free library service wouldn’t change – you’d just charge extra for the value-added, personalized, bells-and-whistles service”

    That’s one of the flies in the “charging for superior service” ointment–it sounds good, but there’s a natural tendency for tiered service to result in degradation of the free/lowest tier over time. Particularly if funding agencies see a chance to save some bucks by assuming that the people who Really Want Library Services will cough up for them individually. Which then results in the library largely abandoning its role as a resource of last resort.

    Can that be avoided? Tough to say.

  • http://library.coloradocollege.edu/steve/ Steve Lawson

    Echoing what Walt says, I don’t see how you can have “weighted holds, so you’re first in line for videos” and still say “the normal, friendly, and free library service wouldn’t change.” People who don’t pay up wouldn’t get to to the top of the hold queue for months in the case of popular materials.

    As I commented on Michael’s blog, I think that the public library is one of the few egalitarian institutions in this country. I don’t have the research to back this up, but I’d guess that many library users prize that aspect of the public library. Having tiers of service based on a “customer’s” ability to pay seems extremely problematic to me, and changes the relationship of the public to the public library for the worse.

    I’m also guessing that DVDs, shipped without a case as Netflix does, are some of the only items that could economically be shipped around using first class mail like this. So why try to compete with Netflix, who already has this DVD market sewn up? They crushed Blockbuster already, right? Why would a person switch from Netflix (which seems to deliver almost any DVD a person could want quickly and affordably) to the library, which is likely to have a much smaller selection with longer queues?

  • http://www.libraryman.com/ Michael Porter

    Good stuff! I’m enjoying, thinking about and learning from each and every comment.

    Steve said:
    “So why try to compete with Netflix, who already has this DVD market sewn up?”

    David said:
    “let’s not stop at videos. How about the rest of our content? ”

    I say: That is the ultimate point of this discusiion.

    Yesterday, I also said:
    “While these posts are centered on Netflix and libraries, the big picture isn’t really about DVD’s (pun not intended). What we’re really talking about is material and CONTENT. Content of all types. That’s huge, huge, huge and nobody can come close to touching the depth and quality of material content libraries have. Yet. At this point “they” may simply sometimes have better access and provision models. We’ll figure this business out one way or another…or perhaps business already has us figured out?”
    http://www.libraryman.com/blog/archives/000228.html

  • http://www.libraryman.com Michael Porter

    Good stuff! I’m enjoying, thinking about and learning from each and every comment.

    Steve said:
    “So why try to compete with Netflix, who already has this DVD market sewn up?”

    David said:
    “let’s not stop at videos. How about the rest of our content? ”

    I say: That is the ultimate point of this discusiion.

    Yesterday, I also said:
    “While these posts are centered on Netflix and libraries, the big picture isn’t really about DVD’s (pun not intended). What we’re really talking about is material and CONTENT. Content of all types. That’s huge, huge, huge and nobody can come close to touching the depth and quality of material content libraries have. Yet. At this point “they” may simply sometimes have better access and provision models. We’ll figure this business out one way or another…or perhaps business already has us figured out?”
    http://www.libraryman.com/blog/archives/000228.html

  • http://library.coloradocollege.edu/steve/ Steve Lawson

    But, Michael, I also said that I doubted you could effectively and cheaply mail items other than DVDs, such as hardcover books. I could be wrong about that, but that is where my “why compete with Netflix” comment is coming from.

    I know you plan to write more on this, Michael, so please expand on your ideas about “CONTENT,” presumably as distinct from “STUFF.”

  • http://library.coloradocollege.edu/steve/ Steve Lawson

    But, Michael, I also said that I doubted you could effectively and cheaply mail items other than DVDs, such as hardcover books. I could be wrong about that, but that is where my “why compete with Netflix” comment is coming from.

    I know you plan to write more on this, Michael, so please expand on your ideas about “CONTENT,” presumably as distinct from “STUFF.”

  • http://diylibrarian.org/ Tara

    “this community-based version of a Netflix-like model would be friendly, personalized, and close to home – therefore more desirable than Netflix, et al.”

    Rather than try to compete with Netflix (or Blockbuster), why don’t libraries play up what makes them better than either?
    1. more spontaneous and community-based than Netflix – just pop in and browse the shelves, talk to a librarian to get suggestions for what to watch, maybe read reviews from other patrons, join a movie-watching club, etc.
    2. better (or at least more unique) selection than Blockbuster – I’ve always thought public libraries should concentrate on getting the things that Blockbuster does not do well on, like documentaries, and that Netflix users might not be aware of
    3. free and equitable access

  • http://diylibrarian.org Tara

    “this community-based version of a Netflix-like model would be friendly, personalized, and close to home – therefore more desirable than Netflix, et al.”

    Rather than try to compete with Netflix (or Blockbuster), why don’t libraries play up what makes them better than either?
    1. more spontaneous and community-based than Netflix – just pop in and browse the shelves, talk to a librarian to get suggestions for what to watch, maybe read reviews from other patrons, join a movie-watching club, etc.
    2. better (or at least more unique) selection than Blockbuster – I’ve always thought public libraries should concentrate on getting the things that Blockbuster does not do well on, like documentaries, and that Netflix users might not be aware of
    3. free and equitable access

  • Tina

    As a librarian with a substantial previous life in the business world, I do think there are some services that could be offered for a fee, like home delivery, mailing of content. In some communities people go online to order their groceries and have them delivered to their door. Generally, this being communities where people see their time as a valuable commodity, like the Silicon Valley, where Netflix was founded. The idea of weighted holds, though, makes me start thinking about this whole discussion that is going on about a premium tiered internet. Those who pay the most get the best access, best content. No one is supposed to own the internet, and publicly funded libraries aren’t really supposed to be about tiered services either. Bringing in a value added service such as mailing doesn’t necessarily impact the access that other patrons have always had to content, but weighted holds would impact access for those who don’t pay for it. So while I support looking for potential value added services a library could charge a fee for, I also feel that heavy thought needs to be given to any negative impact on the basic mission of a publicly funded library.

  • Tina

    As a librarian with a substantial previous life in the business world, I do think there are some services that could be offered for a fee, like home delivery, mailing of content. In some communities people go online to order their groceries and have them delivered to their door. Generally, this being communities where people see their time as a valuable commodity, like the Silicon Valley, where Netflix was founded. The idea of weighted holds, though, makes me start thinking about this whole discussion that is going on about a premium tiered internet. Those who pay the most get the best access, best content. No one is supposed to own the internet, and publicly funded libraries aren’t really supposed to be about tiered services either. Bringing in a value added service such as mailing doesn’t necessarily impact the access that other patrons have always had to content, but weighted holds would impact access for those who don’t pay for it. So while I support looking for potential value added services a library could charge a fee for, I also feel that heavy thought needs to be given to any negative impact on the basic mission of a publicly funded library.

  • http://blog.ryaneby.com/ Eby

    Two examples:

    AADL Zoom Lends where you pay a fee to get access to copies of high demand books (ones that have large hold lines). Supposedly very popular.

    http://www.aadl.org/services/materials/zoomlends

    Another one from library camp. I believe Darien Library plans on offering a for-pay book delivery service to the home for those who would prefer to pay over driving.

  • http://blog.ryaneby.com Eby

    Two examples:

    AADL Zoom Lends where you pay a fee to get access to copies of high demand books (ones that have large hold lines). Supposedly very popular.

    http://www.aadl.org/services/materials/zoomlends

    Another one from library camp. I believe Darien Library plans on offering a for-pay book delivery service to the home for those who would prefer to pay over driving.

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  • Peter

    A contrarian take: There’s already a fee-based service that offers DVDs through the mail–it’s called Netflix. Why would libraries want to do THAT? Let’s look at the advantages of the library model for circulating DVDs. First, it’s absolutely free (except in those libraries that charge a fee, but shouldn’t). Next, libraries pay close to full price for DVDs but for any disc that circs more than 40 times (and most do) the cost per use is so low that it could never be matched in any pricing agreement with Netflix. Third, you don’t have access to Netflix’s thousands of titles at the library, but so what? Libraries do you the favor of winnowing out most of the dreck, of which there’s plenty, and offering you the titles built to last. For titles the library doesn’t own, there’s always ILL. Fourth, you don’t have to wait. In a good library collection, you’ll have hundreds of titles on the shelf which you can check out that day, with no fussing around on a web site and no waiting a day or two for mail delivery. Oh, and did I mention it will be free? And finally, tax money used to buy DVDs pays for materials that stay in the community and are used there time after time after time. Tax money sent to Netflix pays for one use and pads the bottom line of a company based godknows where. I’m sure there are more advantages to the library model but I’m doing this on work time and need to get back to it. Again, I really don’t see the point in having libraries provide a service that’s already available, especially when doing so would create a division between library users with privileges and those without.

  • Peter

    A contrarian take: There’s already a fee-based service that offers DVDs through the mail–it’s called Netflix. Why would libraries want to do THAT? Let’s look at the advantages of the library model for circulating DVDs. First, it’s absolutely free (except in those libraries that charge a fee, but shouldn’t). Next, libraries pay close to full price for DVDs but for any disc that circs more than 40 times (and most do) the cost per use is so low that it could never be matched in any pricing agreement with Netflix. Third, you don’t have access to Netflix’s thousands of titles at the library, but so what? Libraries do you the favor of winnowing out most of the dreck, of which there’s plenty, and offering you the titles built to last. For titles the library doesn’t own, there’s always ILL. Fourth, you don’t have to wait. In a good library collection, you’ll have hundreds of titles on the shelf which you can check out that day, with no fussing around on a web site and no waiting a day or two for mail delivery. Oh, and did I mention it will be free? And finally, tax money used to buy DVDs pays for materials that stay in the community and are used there time after time after time. Tax money sent to Netflix pays for one use and pads the bottom line of a company based godknows where. I’m sure there are more advantages to the library model but I’m doing this on work time and need to get back to it. Again, I really don’t see the point in having libraries provide a service that’s already available, especially when doing so would create a division between library users with privileges and those without.

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  • http://library.coloradocollege.edu/steve/ Steve Lawson

    Echoing what Walt says, I don't see how you can have “weighted holds, so you’re first in line for videos” and still say “the normal, friendly, and free library service wouldn’t change.” People who don't pay up wouldn't get to to the top of the hold queue for months in the case of popular materials.

    As I commented on Michael's blog, I think that the public library is one of the few egalitarian institutions in this country. I don't have the research to back this up, but I'd guess that many library users prize that aspect of the public library. Having tiers of service based on a “customer's” ability to pay seems extremely problematic to me, and changes the relationship of the public to the public library for the worse.

    I'm also guessing that DVDs, shipped without a case as Netflix does, are some of the only items that could economically be shipped around using first class mail like this. So why try to compete with Netflix, who already has this DVD market sewn up? They crushed Blockbuster already, right? Why would a person switch from Netflix (which seems to deliver almost any DVD a person could want quickly and affordably) to the library, which is likely to have a much smaller selection with longer queues?