A Librarian’s Perspective on Streaming Video in Educational Contexts
We recently met with Andy Horbal, director of access services and streaming video coordinator at Cornell Library, to follow up on a topic for discussion he brought to the videolib listserv: crafting streaming video-specific collection policy statements. After a rich conversation, we invited Andy to share his thoughts in a guest blog post. His insights on navigating streaming acquisitions bring additional perspective to our reports, Teaching with Streaming Video, Understanding Instructional Practices, Challenges, and Support Needs, and Streaming Media Licensing and Purchasing Practices at Academic Libraries.
Almost exactly one year ago, I added “Streaming Video Coordinator” to my portfolio at Cornell University Library, a role which includes looking strategically at our streaming media offerings. In this capacity I started thinking about what a streaming video specific collection policy statement might look like. In fact, it doesn’t seem that libraries collect streaming video, but rather prioritize timely access to films needed to support course instruction. Up until a few years ago, acquiring a DVD (and before that a VHS tape) was the most cost-effective way to accomplish this, and even after frequently paying “institutional rate” prices, media librarians usually had money left over to invest in supplementing the strengths and shoring up the weaknesses in their collections.
Now, however, libraries are finding it more difficult to provide reliable access to films needed to support instruction. Conditioned by the “on-demand” ethos of commercial streaming platforms, faculty and students tend to have unrealistic expectations about library streaming resources that are often impossible to meet. Librarians regularly field requests for movies in theaters or even still playing the film festival circuit, “Netflix originals,” and titles that were never released in the United States. Patrons also assume that the rates of $2.99 to rent or $14.99 to buy a movie that they encounter on Amazon Prime go for libraries as well and are flabbergasted to learn that $150 for one year or $500 or more for perpetual access is much more common.
At many academic libraries, including my own, this has created a situation whereby demand far outstrips the funds available to meet it. As a result, the desire to stretch each dollar as far as it can go can have an outsized influence on decisions about which films to acquire and how long to license them for. If there is reason to believe that a film will still be in demand one or three years down the road, librarians may opt for perpetual access—not to make content accessible to patrons long-term, but because it is cheaper. Absent such evidence, libraries typically choose the least expensive option. Another problem is that perpetual access isn’t even available for all titles, which effectively forces libraries to acquire them over and over again. The result of all this is that libraries’ video collections no longer reflect the full spectrum of our faculty’s teaching and research interests or try to anticipate future ones. Instead, streaming video collections merely provide a snapshot of what instructors and students are using right now.
While streaming video has some clear advantages over physical formats, as a form of collection its transient selection creates challenges for faculty, librarians and vendors. For example, university faculty don’t teach the same courses every semester, so teaching material cycles in and out of style. While library patrons are familiar with the concept of “renting” a movie, they associate it with a very short period of time of no more than a few days. The alternative to this model in their mind is “ownership,” which lasts forever. Faculty often don’t seem to have a framework for “licensing,” which is somewhere in between, and expect that if their students had access to a film all semester five years ago, they can assign it again today. Unfortunately, streaming video licenses expire and films come and go from platforms, which means that titles which are available today may not be tomorrow, and once they are gone, they may be gone forever. When the library owns a film on DVD, a single instructor can restore it to relevance even after years of neglect by using it themselves and telling their colleagues, who might follow suit; when it’s only temporarily available as a streaming video, this ceases to be possible.
Vendors also have unrealistic expectations for academic libraries and assume that they have unlimited funds to purchase whatever their patrons ask for. Sadly, this is not true, and as costs go up, we will instead find ourselves saying no more often. If faculty and students get this answer too many times, eventually they’ll stop asking and will turn instead to finding films themselves through whatever channel (YouTube, commercial services, etc.) is most convenient—even if it’s an illegal one.
In the end, we did not create a blanket streaming video collection policy statement for Cornell because licensing decisions are ultimately the domain of subject librarian “selectors.” We decided that the best place to explain to patrons what factors we take into account when deciding whether or not to obtain video resources in streaming formats is therefore in their individual subject collection policies, since this will vary from discipline to discipline. Selectors generally only purchase streaming video when someone asks for it, which seems less than ideal for content providers, who can no longer post information about new releases to listservs like Videonews or maintain rolodexes of media librarian contacts, but rather must market materials to multiple people at each institution. It may also accelerate the trends described above by making it harder to identify titles with interdisciplinary appeal. Nonetheless, this model seems like the best fit for our present reality.
I’ve heard from colleagues at many other institutions that they’re reluctant to advertise their streaming video resources lest they find themselves inundated by requests they can’t meet. Although it was opposed by many in the vendor community, I wonder if something like the DMCA exemption proposed by Brigham Young University in 2021 to permit the use of more than just “short portions” of copy-protected Blu-Ray discs and DVDs for educational purposes is actually the best solution for all concerned. It’s hard to argue that allowing academic libraries to digitize physical media in their collections for use in the classroom and electronic reserves wouldn’t result in some institutions purchasing fewer streaming video licenses, but we’d also be acquiring more content overall. Our video collections would once again grow organically through the purchases we make, and for the first time in years, we’d be able to confidently assert that we can meet our patrons’ current and future needs in this area. Even if I’m wrong about this, one thing seems certain: if nothing changes, academic library video collections will soon be just as obsolete as Betamax, LaserDisc, or ¾” U-Matic.