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The Public Library -- Just Another Blockbuster

September 20, 2003|Steven Rosen | Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles writer.

When the wallet of my friend in Denver was stolen recently, he contacted his credit card companies and the police. He didn't, however, rush to notify his public library. That was a bad idea. Several weeks later, the library notified him that he owed $800 for unreturned items. His privileges were suspended, with the threat of further action.

The thief didn't take Shakespeare's collected works. Nor art history books. The thief took popular DVDs and videos that had commercial resale value and checked them out on my friend's card. Twenty-three of them: "Mission: Impossible," "Fists of Fury," "Runaway Bride," "Die Hard," the first season of "Sex and the City" and more.

I have questions: Why is a public library carrying these films and loaning them free? What is the artistic worth and the public need? Don't commercial movie-rental stores have this market covered? And aren't they diverting precious shelf space away from books?

As to that last question, the answer is no. "The way they turn over, there is no shelving drain," says Celeste Jackson, spokeswoman for the Denver library system. For generations, libraries across the nation have carried audiovisual materials such as classical and jazz recordings, slides and 16-millimeter film strips. But they were specialized collections. That began to change in the 1980s, when libraries started collecting popular music CDs and feature film videos. Now, especially with the growth of DVDs, audiovisuals are almost as popular as books in some places. Such as Denver.

In Los Angeles, where the downtown library has a colorful Popular Library room filled with videos, DVDs and recordings, up to three DVDs and videos can be borrowed at a time -- and for just two days. The overdue fee is a hefty $1 a day. Still, it's a busy place with its own staff and crackles with an energetic excitement unlike more traditional departments.

When I lived in Denver and wrote for the Denver Post as a movie critic, I supported the growth of library video/DVD collections. I believed, and still do, that the public needed an accessible repository for classic and art films, documentaries, PBS programs and the like. In short, we needed a library to collect and make accessible "good" videos. But "Runaway Bride"? "Mission: Impossible"? "Dude, Where's My Car"? (Denver has three copies of it.) Dude, where's my library heading?

Libraries are populist institutions that evolve with times. And part of that change, I guess, is to embrace the "fun" aspects of their collections. "One of the trends during recession times is the increase in circulation of books and audiovisual materials. It's a good entertainment value since the vast majority of the material is free," said Luis Herrera, president of the Public Library Assn. and director of the Pasadena Public Library.

Still, it might be better if libraries required patrons to take out at least one book for every 23 or so films they check out. And read it, not steal it.

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