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Books Fri Jul 04 2014

What the Hoopla's All About

chicago public library - hoopla digitalBefore the industrial revolution, only an affluent elite could afford to have libraries in their homes. Today we enjoy public libraries precisely because technological advancements made the mass production of books feasible, affordable. Now, technology has once again fostered a possible next step in library advancement: Hoopla Digital.

Recently adopted by Chicago Public Library, Hoopla Digital is a supplemental digital library brimming with audiobooks, videos, music and, later this year, e-books. Currently operating through 23 libraries in the greater Chicago area, and offering nearly 200,000 titles to download or stream 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And, like the library, it's all free.

"I've been serving public libraries for 25 years, and so public libraries have really been near and dear to my heart," says Jeff Jankowski, the founder and president of Hoopla Digital. "I think they really empower people to discover and find their own voice, so I want to give -- and my company wants to give -- Hoopla as a tool, as a digital brand for public libraries throughout North America... to really allow them to stay relevant in the digital age."

A digital offshoot of Midwest Tape, a media distributor that has sold physical items to public libraries for over two decades, Hoopla operates much in the same way that physical distribution does. Libraries pay for titles, and make them available to users free of charge. The only difference here is that the library only pays for titles per use by library cardholders, and they pay less per rental than they do in physical book acquisition.

With Hoopla the cost to the library of purchasing a book decreases significantly -- from approximately five dollars per title to, on average, $1.95, Jankowski estimates. Thus the information bound up in books (as well as films and albums) becomes accessible to even larger audiences. "I think that digital books, digital media, has a really important place," says Jankowski, "because you don't have to be in a physical location. It allows greater access, accessibility to all people."

The upcoming implementation of e-books on the Hoopla platform holds immense positive potential: large-scale access to textual information, environmental sustainability, widespread literacy, and interconnectivity of information on a shared platform, to name a few. When Google Books first emerged in the early 2000s, Adobe's e-publishing manager Bill McCoy said of digitizing information, "Some of us have thousands of books at home, can walk to wonderful big-box bookstores and well-stocked libraries and can get to deliver next day. The most dramatic effect of digital libraries will be not on us, the well-booked, but on the billions of people worldwide who are underserved by ordinary paper books."

Google Books' intentions were a bit more large-scale, but the sentiment is the same. With platform access for all CPL cardholders comes the opportunity to drastically even the playing field between library branches that have disparate physical resources.

Of course, the assumption that the Internet is universal is a problematic one; access is a privilege and a commodity. However, CPL has big plans for later this year. The Chicago Public Library was recently awarded a $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for the purpose of making wifi hotspots available for check-out at six key branches throughout Chicago, making Internet access a truly public resource.

Hoopla may also even the playing field for small-press artists and authors. In a system whereby libraries can afford far more titles at no immediate cost, small presses will gain easier access to distribution. As Netflix has become an exposure platform for many independent, less-distributed film titles, so will the small publishers find a friend in Hoopla. "Our goal is [to make available] every author, every title," says Jankowski, "We're talking to other aggregators of independent authors, of self publishing. Especially on the book side because there's just so many titles. I think it's great to have all titles available at all times and currently that doesn't exist in the library world, digital or physical."

Convenience has a tendency to sound sinister. "What's the catch?" we ask ourselves as we search for the sniveling underdog left in some corporation's wake. In the case of my own initial wariness toward Hoopla Digital, the classic Bibliophile's Dilemma is partly to blame: for almost a decade purists have been eulogizing the printed page, convinced that the Kindle, the Nook or Google Books would surely strike it dead. Yet the paradigm of paper lives on. In response to Hoopla's plans to add e-books to their selection later this year, I ask Jankowski where he thinks print is headed. "I think the future of print is here to stay," he replies, "I mean, some people just love books. They want to hold them, they want to discover them." The tactility of tomes cannot and will not be replaced: only supplemented.

As I place a digital bookmark in an audio book of Naked Lunch and click over to Arcade Fire's Reflektor, my other concern is what it's costing the library to do so. When I ask Communications director Ruth Lednicer, she informs me that this year the Chicago Public Library Foundation has sponsored the instatement of Hoopla by fundraising private donations -- a truly wonderful feat -- so the budget of the physical library will remain intact.

As usership grows, and with it the expense of per-book payments, Jankowski notes that the library is in control. "It's up to the library to decide how much they spend on digital and how much they spend on physical. I think that will be something we will work with over time, but I think it's the library's decision," he says. And while we may still fret that the digital library might someday overtake the actual one -- as many did in the age of Google Books -- in the case of Hoopla Digital the public library is ultimately the consumer: the platform's success relies on its relationship with the library, not the whims of the public. Jankowski seems to want to preserve all the physical amenities the library offers. "Story time, homework centers, public access terminals for people that don't have computers... It's kind of one of the last places you can get really great customer service."

As far as sustaining the library as a community hub, we will have to wait and see. Even as the library continues to offer the same in-house programs and workshops, it's easy to be wary. Passive engagement with any Internet platform has a habit of isolating users in a way that seems contrary to the library's objectives. One must ask, who would still go to the library when they can get any book, video or album they need on their smart phone?

I do not doubt that Hoopla Digital will change the way in which Chicagoans interact with the Public Library. The convenience and efficiency are too great to go overlooked. However, I do believe that, just as the printed page survived the promised revolution of e-books, those who now go to the library will still go to the library even as its digital branch grows. Hoopla will simply help a beloved institution make a home in the digital age.

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