Who doesn’t like movies? Who doesn’t like free?
Anyone who has a Philadelphia library card can walk into a local branch and stroll out with 10 DVDs and not pay a cent for them as long as they’re returned in a week.
That’s a pretty good value. Actually, it’s a great value, especially when you consider the huge selection of films available on DVD at most city library branches.
There are about 5,000 DVDs at the regional library on Cottman Avenue, said reference librarian Keith Kessler.
Library branches have a surprisingly large number, too. For example, the Torresdale branch on Holme Avenue has roughly 2,400 DVDs, said librarian Ann Horbach. Ditto for the Bushrod branch on Castor Avenue, said librarian Catherine Krystopowicz. David Payne, manager of the Tacony branch at Torresdale and Knorr, said he has about 2,000 titles.
These are just samples of what’s available at a few Northeast Philly branches.
And each branch organizes its selection differently, Kessler said.
Librarian Kristin Sawka can give a good breakdown of the Bustleton branch’s approximately 1,500 titles: 500 features, 250 documentaries or non-fiction, 200 Indian-language titles and about 200 Russian DVDs as well about 500 children’s titles.
Other branches might alphabetically separate the children’s material from the adult section, and the non-fiction from the fiction and leave it pretty much at that.
Like the Bustleton branch, some other Northeast libraries have foreign-language DVDs. The regional has many, Kessler said, including large numbers in Hindi, Chinese and Vietnamese as well as smaller amounts in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, German and French.
The Northeast librarians interviewed for this story all said new releases are not only hard to keep on the shelves, they often don’t even make it to the shelves before they’re borrowed. They get reserved by the savvy library patrons who keep track of what is coming out and when.
Or, even when they’re returned, “people take them off the shelving carts,” Sawka said in an e-mail to the Northeast Times.
Kessler characterized the regional’s DVD borrowers as a crew of knowledgeable movie fans who have high expectations, but other librarians said their patrons sometimes are surprised by the number of DVDs at their branches as well as the range of subject matter.
Individual library DVD collections can be a little fluid. Not only are new titles coming in all the time, but they, well, float.
Anyone who borrows material from one city library branch may return it to another, Torresdale’s Hornbach said. That’s very convenient for library patrons, but a DVD borrowed at a Northeast branch that is returned in South Philly stays in South Philly — until it somehow makes it back to the Northeast. As long as it is returned, it’s in the citywide library’s system, Kessler said, so if a patron wants it, a request can be put in to bring it back to a branch.
That ability to go after a title that isn’t in a branch goes beyond city limits. Philly’s librarians can request material from different systems across the state.
The newer the DVD, the more in-demand it is, said Krystopowicz.
“The newer releases for both adult and children’s videos go right out, repeatedly,” Hornbach said.
Payne said The King’s Speech is extremely popular as are DVD collections of TV series from both side of the Atlantic like The Tudors and MI5. Collections of shows aired by PBS on Masterpiece Theater “are extremely hot right now,” he said.
Sometimes, it’s just the newness that draws attention.
Oscar-nominated The Help is hard to keep on the shelves, Krystopowicz said, but so is Thor, a Marvel comic book-to-Hollywood offering that wasn’t a particularly celebrated release.
The Northeast’s branches also have some DVDs that patrons might ordinarily overlook.
Film classics like On the Waterfront and old TV shows from The Honeymooners to Seinfeld don’t get much attention from the Bushrod branch’s patrons, said Krystopowicz. Torresdale has some Shirley Temple movies as well as old Flintstones and Batman cartoons that kids would enjoy, Hornbach said, but they’re not borrowed often.
Payne said the Tacony branch has some high-quality films that rarely leave with patrons.
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thrillers like Night Train to Munich or The Lady Vanishes aren’t titles that jump out at modern library patrons, he said. Neither are Man with a Movie Camera, a 1929 silent film documentary about the Soviet Union, or La Notti Bianche, a 1957 black-and-white Italian-language love story starring Marcello Mastroianni and directed by Luchino Visconti.
Kessler agreed that Hitchcock’s films aren’t the draw they should be. Usually overlooked DVDs at the regional library, he said, include Harold and Maude, a 1971 Hal Ashby comedy about the romance of a young man and a very old woman, portrayed by Ruth Gordon, and Slaughterhouse-Five, director George Roy Hill’s 1972 take on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s anti-war novel of the same name.
Libraries also have documentaries whose theatrical releases might be ignored by film fans. Pressure Cooker, for example, a film about Frankford High School’s culinary arts program and Wilma Stephenson, the blunt, no-nonsense teacher who runs it, is available at the Tacony branch, Payne said.
Biographies, said Sawka, are available at the Bustleton branch but aren’t borrowed often.
“Occasionally, we’ll have a teacher or a parent take one for their kid who is not really a reader,” Sawka said.
Librarians pointed to educational, history and how-to titles that are available but hardly used.
Payne said he is building a local history collection at Tacony. Included in that is Precious Places, a 2005 release about several Philadelphia neighborhoods and includes a short made by the Tacony Civic Association.
“It’s a wonderful community documentary,” Payne said.
Another piece of that collection is something that’s becoming historic in its own right. All Aboard is about the city’s trolley cars. It’s not a DVD though; it’s a VHS tape. If you got rid of your old VCR, you’re out of luck. There’s no DVD copy, Payne said.
The library system’s VHS tape collection has been getting chucked over the past few years, but some librarians said they have retained a few titles.
As good a deal as borrowing library DVDs is, not returning them on time can run into money. The return-it-at-any-city-branch policy helps patrons avoid fines because patrons can get them back in time even if they’re not near their home branch. But fines can add up. DVDs are free only for a week. After that, the fines are a buck a day per DVD, up to $10 per DVD. If you took out 10 and forgot about them, the fines total $100. ••
Land (and library) of the free…
The Free Library of Philadelphia, which has 10 branches and a regional facility in the Northeast, is a lot more than a collection of books or an educational resource. Your local library is a great entertainment value.
After all, it’s the free library. A patron can, for example, check out 10 DVDs, keep them for a week at no charge and get more week after week.
Citywide, the library system has almost 170,000 DVDs. Individual branches have thousands of titles, a fact probably not known by a solid majority of city residents. The number of people who have library cards — the free pass to all those DVDs — is 460,000, or only about 30 percent of Philadelphia’s population of roughly 1.5 million.
How you can get carded…
Are you a card-carrying Philadelphian?
No? It’s pretty easy to get a library card.
If you live, work or go to school in the city, you’re eligible.
Stop in any branch library to apply or go to http://libwww.freelibrary.org/register/getcard1.cfm
This month, the Northeast Times will look at local libraries as sources of feature films, documentaries, TV shows, music, audio books, children’s books and programming and great book finds for adults.