Think of a suburban library card as a key, one that can unlock the doors to books, of course, but also computer classes, DVDs and more.
The latest door to be unlocked? Streaming media.
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Libraries in the North and West suburbs offering Hoopla Digital streaming service include:
• Addison Public Library
• Arlington Heights Memorial Library
• Barrington Area Library
• Bloomingdale Public Library
• Cook Memorial Public Library (Libertyville)
• Ela Area Public Library (Lake Zurich)
• Elmhurst Public Library
• Glen Ellyn Public Library
• Grayslake Area Public Library
• Indian Trails Library District (Wheeling)
• Lisle Library District
• Palatine Public Library
• Prospect Heights Public Library
• St. Charles Public Library
More than a dozen public libraries in the suburbs have started offering Hoopla Digital, a service that allows cardholders to stream or download movies, television shows and other content for free.
Libraries that have launched the service say it's the latest move in a larger effort to stay current and relevant. In recent years, libraries in the suburbs have courted patrons of all ages with amenities such as sophisticated media labs and bookstore-style cafes.
"We have to stay attentive to what our patrons want," said Heidi Krueger, reference services manager for the St. Charles Public Library, which started offering Hoopla last fall. "In our case, we serve technology-sophisticated people who tend to be early adopters. They've been asking about streaming for awhile now."
Hoopla digital works much like commercial streaming services such as Netflix. A library patron searches Hoopla's offerings through a web browser or a mobile app and selects a title to be streamed or downloaded. The title will be available for a certain length of time, and when that time expires, the title will automatically be "returned."
An individual library patron will be able to stream or download a limited number of titles per month. In St. Charles, for example, the monthly streaming limit for cardholders is 10.
But Hoopla allows an unlimited number of people to stream a particular title at one time, which means no more long waits for popular titles.
Hoopla was created by Midwest Tape, an Ohio company that provides public libraries around the country with physical media products, such as DVDs, CDs and audiobooks. Jeff Jankowski, founder of Hoopla, said the service was designed in part as a reaction against the "one user, one copy" circulation model that drives so much library business.
"When you want to read or watch something, and you have to wait a long time for it, that makes for a bad experience," Jankowski said. "Hoopla does what technology should always do -- leverage content for the greatest number of people."
Right now, movies, music and audiobooks are available on Hoopla. Jankowski said the company plans to add e-books later this year.
Hoopla's selection isn't as up-to-date as some commercial services, but the range of titles is wide. Movie fans can stream award-winning dramas, such as "The King's Speech," comedies, such as "The Big Lebowski," and family-oriented fare, such as "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."
On the music side, current releases such as the Black Keys' "Turn Blue" and the "Frozen" soundtrack are available, along with older titles.
Hoopla does not charge libraries a flat fee for its service. Instead, it charges a fee each time a movie, album or audiobook is borrowed. The service is free for the individual cardholder.
The St. Charles Public Library budgeted $12,000 for hoopla this year, Krueger said. The Barrington Area Library, which launched Hoopla in November 2013, budgeted $6,000 for this year.
"The response is growing," said Karen McBride, public information manager for the Barrington Area Library. "We have 721 patrons who have registered with Hoopla, and July has been our busiest month ever. I expect more and more people to use it."
More suburban libraries are likely to offer Hoopla in the future, too. The Gail Borden Public Library District based in Elgin offers a popular music-streaming service right now, but library officials say they're looking at Hoopla for movies and television shows.
"It's all about libraries keeping pace with what's happening out there," library Director Carole Medal said.