Can the Free Library Replace Your Netflix Subscription?

New Hoopla service lets Philly cardholders stream movies, music, and TV.

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The Free Library of Philadelphia is taking a giant leap into the Streaming Digital Future of Everything today, launching Hoopla — a service that lets library cardholders check out TV, movies, audiobooks, and music. (The service is available for tablets and smartphones via apps on iTunes and Google Play.)

“Think of it like a Netflix for libraries,” the Free Library said in a blog post introducing the service. “And because you stream, rather than download, content from Hoopla, there are no waiting lists, no holds, and of course, no late fees! ”

But will it replace Netflix? Probably not for most users: There’s a limit of 10 items per month that can be checked out by each cardholder.

And then there’s the content. In all cases, it appears somewhat limited — but that’s not entirely a bad thing.

With the movie selection, for example, there are classics on hand like ET, The Sting, and Coal Miner’s Daughter to be checked out. The TV section is more limited — heavy on documentaries and BBC productions, with current network productions nowhere to be found. The audiobook selection appears to have a number of recent best-sellers available, and the music selection is … about what you’d usually expect to find at the free library.

One note for parents: Children with a library card will find their access to movies restricted: No “R” rated downloads, on G and PG. And you can choose to put a total restriction on video downloads for your kids, if you choose to exercise that level of control.

As for the 10-items-per-month restriction, well, Hoopla doesn’t come free.

Library Journal explained the business model during the service’s beta-testing last year:

Users can either go directly to Hoopla and sign in with their library card or begin at their library’s own website, which will direct them to Hoopla’s site to browse the offerings. When a patron checks out a video, audiobook, or album of music, his or her library pays a fee of between $0.99 and $2.99.

The difficulty with this sort of system is that it can be tricky to factor fluctuating costs into a tight budget. Most libraries will work around this by limiting the number of times individual patrons can check out Hoopla materials each month—Columbus limits it to eight, Seattle to 20—and basing the budget on the highest possible usage. “We have a yearly budget divided by month and can look any time to see where we are,” explained Marilyn Zielinski, technical services manager at Toledo-Lucas PL in Ohio. She added, “If we don’t spend the monthly cap, we can reallocate those funds.”

The library adds: “The first time you visit Hoopla, click ‘Sign Up’ in the top right of the screen; agree to the terms of service, select ‘Free Library of Philadelphia’ as your library, and register with your library card number, PIN, and email address.”