My friends and I have diverse film experiences. They tend to see more movies than I do, whereas I see more unusual or esoteric ones. Where they've seen Dr. Strangelove, I watched Fail-Safe; for their Zombieland, there's my The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. As a result, we often exchange recommendations, though even our acceptances take different forms: their "I'll add it to my Netflix queue" to my "I'll borrow it from the library."
I understand Netflix's appeal and the purpose it serves: it provides its customers with easy opportunities to expose themselves to a variety of movies and television shows they'd otherwise never see, and for a more affordable price than traditional purchases or rentals. Doing all this without leaving home is convenient, and the option of streaming it directly to your set-top box makes it unnecessary to anticipate your desires more than a few minutes in advance.
But for all this, and especially in light of its recent rate increase, Netflix still strikes me as an inferior choice next to the oft-overlooked public library. This venerable institution is sometimes seen as a destination more for children than adults, or for the decreasing number of bookworms in an increasingly multimedia world. But libraries and librarians are often on the cutting edge of technology, which for more than a decade has included such basic offerings as DVDs.
Anyone with a library card can borrow movies and TV shows for free. Much like Netflix, such requests can be made online: just search the library's online catalog, click a button, and the item will be set aside as soon as it becomes available. If the local branch doesn't carry a specific title, odds are their interlibrary loan (ILL) program can procure it at no additional charge. They'll even send an email when the item is ready to be picked up.
True, libraries don't provide streaming media — but my limited understanding of this aspect of Netflix gives me the same opinion of that service as I did of DivX a decade ago. Streaming media does not offer the wealth of bonus features and other additional content that add value to the physical disc. Viewers who still want those can order the disc from Netflix — but at that point, why not use the library?
Besides there being no monthly charge, no limits on borrowing, and no commitment to a persistent membership fee even when life is too busy for movies, there's a far more important reason to consider the library. The challenges of today's economy have afflicted civic services, and libraries are one that we cannot afford to lose. Libraries are a vital element of not just a democracy, but a thriving economy. In one study, every dollar invested in library services returned an increase of $9.08 in gross regional product and $12.66 in total state wages, making them one of the best investments our society can make.
Fortunately, your patronage is just as valuable as your money. At the same time funding is reaching all-time lows, library usage is at an all-time high. When it comes time to allocate next year's budget, one of the best arguments libraries can make is to demonstrate the need and desire for their services by pointing to current usage trends. Every DVD borrowed from libraries is another point in their favor, allowing them to continue to encourage a literate and employable citizenry, both in today's generation and tomorrow's.
No alternative — not Netflix, not Best Buy, and especially not piracy — offers cineasts as much bang for the buck as the public library. Where else can one promote literacy without reading a word or paying a dollar?
If that's not a bonus feature, I don't know what is.