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There's a story behind the Main Library's sluggish DVD lending policy, and it ain't pretty

Wednesday, Dec 24 2003
For Dog Bites, the holiday season means another string of cheap dates with frozen pizza, a carton of spiked eggnog, and the TV set. Since we'd already memorized A Charlie Brown Christmas, we decided to celebrate this year's depressionfest with a DVD from the Main Library that would not only lift our spirits, but also revisit an Academy Award-winning tale of love, God, and baby-sitting during the Anschluss. The Sound of Music, anyone?

Humming "Do Re Mi" and fantasizing about a young Julie Andrews in a festive, green-and-red bikini, we arrived at the Main to discover that the DVDs had been replaced in their usual location by VHS tapes, the DVD's plump, antediluvian cousin. Outraged, we immediately buttonholed a library employee, who informed us that DVDs were no longer directly available on the library floor. Instead, we'd have to reserve one online and return to the library to pick it up.

Like cheap whiskey, the Main's DVD checkout policy before September was unsophisticated but effective: Library workers put out a cart loaded with random DVDs on the first floor, and patrons picked over them in search of a title not produced by Ken Burns. Under this system, Dog Bites happily browsed, selected, and enjoyed a number of classic films, including Casablanca and High Noon, merely by dropping by and spontaneously snagging a disc off the cart.

That was before -- sorry, Gonzo! -- homeless people started stealing them en masse. "We were finding 40, 50, 60 empty DVD cases around the building each day," says John Kenny, assistant chief at the Main. Reacting to this threat, the Main arranged an undercover sting in the men's room, soon nabbing a homeless guy in the act of rubbing off a DVD's electronic security strip. Kenny claimed not to know the details of the interrogation, but divulged that the detainee confirmed the existence of a ring that lifted DVDs from the Main Library and resold them in locations ranging from U.N. Plaza, just outside the Main's doors, to the Ashby flea market in Berkeley.

According to Kenny, "A number of individuals were paying street people to go in and take a bunch of DVDs and deliver them to them with no security devices on them. We lost four or five hundred DVDs ... it was causing a lot of damage." Kenny says that on top of paying list price for DVDs, the library shells out 10 bucks to process and catalog each disc.

Dog Bites certainly understands the need for theft prevention, but isn't there a way to do it that still makes it possible to check out a DVD on a whim? Kenny says that before switching to electronic security strips, the library experimented with plastic anti-theft frames called Gressco cases. But, he says, "All our staff got repetitive stress injuries dealing with them. So, our workmen's comp costs went through the roof, not to mention our staff morale. Everyone was wearing a brace."

So why not just leave the cases empty and store the actual DVDs behind the counter? This procedure is used at commercial video stores as well as at some branches in the S.F. library system. Marcia Schneider, public affairs director for the S.F. Public Library, claims there isn't enough space behind the counter at the Main. "I honestly don't know where they'd put them. They're not going to be on the counter behind the check-in -- there isn't any space because of all the reserved books." Suspicious creature that we are, we believe it just might be possible to carve out a space to conveniently retrieve DVDs in a facility that, at 376,000 square feet, is roughly three times the size of the Cow Palace. Of course, that could just be the eggnog talking.

Kenny says storing DVDs up front is "certainly something we could consider, but we felt it was too staff-intensive." He later admitted that the current system of holding DVDs on reserve is "more intensive than that, actually" and promised to run our suggestion up the library administration flagpole. But Kenny emphasizes that the current policy is temporary, and should be lifted with the creation of a secure DVD-browsing room following renovations at the Main scheduled for July.

For now, Main Library-goers will have to plan their DVD viewing schedule ahead of time or regress to VHS. As for Dog Bites, we had to forgo an evening of musical enchantment thanks to the Main's silly, if temporary, policy. Fortunately, browsing the VHS cart turned up a gem we never would've thought of otherwise, and exemplifies why DVD browsing must return. Reefer Madness is due back this week.

About The Author

M.J.F. Stewart


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