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Are We Reaching the End of Library DVD Collections?

by on June 30, 2021

When then-President Trump early voted at the Palm Beach County’s Main Library, late night host Jimmy Kimmel featured it in his show’s opening monologue. In addition to the usual jokes at the President’s expense, Kimmel was amazed by the long row of DVD shelving in the background. “Those are all DVDs. It’s a huge DVD section! There are hundreds of DVDs. In Florida they put up signs that say LIBRARY on all the old Blockbuster video stores.” [1]

Kimmel’s shock at seeing the DVDs implied they are old technology. It is not surprising since the growth of streaming services and on-demand video should make discs obsolete. With so many streaming services available, why would anyone need a DVD or Blu-ray disc? Therefore, are libraries destined to ditch this once-popular collection? 

An informal survey of over a dozen Urban Library Council member libraries conducted for this article shows a more complicated picture. Based on checkouts, demand for DVDs across North American libraries has dropped. For example Migell Acosta, Director of San Diego County Library (CA) reported that they “Have seen a gradual decline in DVD/Blu-Ray circulation over the past 5 years or so, but not as steep as physical music and audiobooks.” 

This drop in borrowing has local variation. In Pima County Public Library (AZ), Director Amber Mathewson noted that demand remains strong. “In one of our more affluent neighborhoods the children’s DVDs were overflowing …. Our hypothesis was that neighborhood has switched to Disney+, but other locations in our county are still circing DVDs pretty heavily.”

The situation is different in Johnson County Public Library (IN). Kelley Gilbert, Collection Services Manager reported they may need more DVDs. “DVD circulation has been really steady throughout the pandemic, and our patrons are always requesting titles that we’ve managed to miss.”

One observation that many library systems made regarding the future of DVD collections was the issue of availability. Acosta commented, “Movie studios are no longer producing every movie in physical format. … It also appears that they are not producing large quantities.” 

Gilbert noted the same thing. “DVD production really slowed down last year, and we are still waiting for it to pick up. It will be interesting to see if studios see this as a time to push consumers to streaming services, rather than increasing DVD production back to pre-pandemic numbers.”

Given the growth in streaming services, there is considerable doubt about the size of DVD collections in the next few years. Darren Solomon, Director of the Richmond Hill Public Library (ON) believes that, “Five years from now I don’t see them being a big part of our collection, but we’ll likely still have some, which would probably be Blu-ray over DVD.” 

Loudon County Public Library (VA) Director Chang Liu felt the same way. “I believe they will diminish while the availability of streaming platforms increases.”

In Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (MD), Blane Halliday, Director for Collection Strategies compared DVDs to other media collections. “Time will tell whether physical circulations of any kind will ever rebound to pre-pandemic levels. History of all non-print physical formats has shown us that, eventually, most disappear over time. Beta, VHS, audiobooks on cassette, music CDs, and audiobooks on CD are all evidence of this.”

Even in the face of declining production, the respondents still felt DVDs were important due to gaps in broadband access and subscription costs. Rose Dawson, Executive Director of the Alexandria Library (VA) observed, “Many customers do not have internet, or have internet, but not streaming services. Additionally, there are so many streaming platforms, that even those who have subscriptions to some platforms won’t have access to everything that is available to stream.”

Accessibility is a reason to keep a robust DVD collection according to Pilar Martinez, Chief Executive Officer of the Edmonton Public Library (AB). “Our research has shown that many of our customers do not have Internet and/or streaming services in their homes, and rely solely on the library to provide DVDs/Blu-rays for home use. As well, some customers do not have a means to play Blu-rays, so we focus our resources on DVDs unless a title is only available on Blu-ray.  We are customer-led and so we strive to build collections that are accessible to as many of our customers as possible.”

Given that many library users are often at the trailing end of new technology adoption, DVDs remain the easiest format for them to use. John Tuggle, Executive Director of the Shreve Memorial Library (LA) noted the lag in technology adoption with prior formats. “Up until 2017, we still had videos in those neighborhoods where there was demand.  I suspect we will continue to provide DVDs where there is demand.”

This is especially true of seniors who may be less digitally adapt than their younger neighbors. Debbie Ehrman, Acting Director at the Salt Lake City Public Library (UT) had this observation. “We have a large population of elderly that prefer and use the DVD collections. A DVD is much easier for many patrons than trying to figure out the streaming services setup.”

As well library collections may be the only place that people find older titles or special interests that may not yet be on a streaming service. As Liz Amundson, Collection Librarian at Madison Public Library (WI) said, “We seem to circ older titles very well still. This includes classics of all kinds, including African-American audience classics like House Party or Friday/Next Friday, etc. We re-buy those over and over.” 

Similarly, Director Liu noted, “Some niche categories are not well represented in streaming services. For example, Bollywood movies are quite popular among our patrons, and they can be hard to find elsewhere. There’s also an issue of permanence – movies are often dropped from streaming services, but we can hold on to a DVD for quite a long time.”

One difference between streaming music versus video is the number of vendors. Whereas a customer can get content from all the major labels through a subscription to either Amazon Music or Apple Music, no one video streaming service provides cross studio content without a rental fee. Catherine Biss, CEO of Markham Public Library (ON) said, “Regional restrictions also cause access issues.  There is different content as well as different services in the States and the rest of the world.  The proliferation of available services is an access issue in itself.  Very little content is available across all services.”

Another reason many library systems will keep their DVDs is the lack of a reliable streaming video vendor. Kay Cahill, Director of Collections and Technology for the Vancouver Public Library (BC) observed, “Our team notes the ongoing instability in the streaming service space is a challenge when it comes to determining our physical/digital balance for content. We’re still dealing with the impacts of the RB Digital purchase by OverDrive, and now looking at the Kanopy impact. This consolidation is an area of concern.”

In the end it appears even in the face of ridicule from late night comedians, libraries will continue to have DVD collections for the foreseeable future. This viewpoint was summed up by Aimee Fifarek, Executive Director of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County (OH). “Broadband here is very limited, and that is part of ours and Redbox’s success with disc-based media. As long as they keep making the discs, and we as a nation keep doing a bad job of making internet access available and affordable, there will be a market for them.”

Reference

  1. Jimmy Kimmel Live! October 26, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhTFfL-RXxg (3:03 minute mark)

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