It has occurred to me only recently that I have, for years, used my local public library as a replacement for Netflix’s pre-millenium (but apparently still functional) DVD-rental-by-mail system, except one better. Using my contemporary notions of zero-friction idea capture, and in exchange for far less attention and money than I used to pay Netflix, I today see more weird and amazing movies than I ever have before, and on my own schedule — while supporting my community’s library as a happy side effect.

By “zero-friction idea capture”, I refer to the strategy I celebrated alongside my ten-year OmniFocus anniversary: when an idea worth further attention pops into my head, but I’m otherwise occupied with some other task, I pull my phone out of my pocket and put that idea somewhere safe and actionable before it floats away. If it represents a task to follow up on later, into my OmniFocus inbox it goes, for later processing. If a thought that I might like to expand into a blog post, then I tap a few words into my phone’s Notes app, within a sub-folder I’ve designated for such.

And if the notion takes the specific form of I ought to watch that movie from a while back — where “a while back” can be any time between the production year of the earliest film committed to modern media through around six months ago — then I tap an icon on my phone’s home screen that goes to my local public library system’s online catalog.

This website is ugly as sin, with a design predating any notion of mobile-capable display, let alone mobile-first. But since I know exactly what I want — get in, request an item, get out — then its dotage does not slow me down much. After my phone auto-fills in my library card number and PIN to log in, I pinch-zoom into the website’s search field to tap in the film title occupying my mind. In the surprisingly likely case that tiny Rhode Island’s library system does have a copy on disc somewhere within its myriad branches, I’ll tap “Request it” and select my neighborhood branch as its destination.

And then, in the best mind-like-water tradition of Getting Things Done and other capture-based productivity strategies, I let myself forget about the movie, with joy and relief. My work is done! In a handful of days, the library will send me an email to come fetch the movie, and I will think: Oh yeah! That movie! Hey, I wanted to see that! Good!! So I pick it up the next time I’m out for a coffee-walk, and then I’ve got a comfy two-week window to actually watch the thing. I usually do, and sometimes I’ll write about the results in this blog.

Most recently, after dreaming about the bizarre 1999 sleeper Existenz, I summoned a copy before leaving bed that morning. And a few days ago, I came across a passing reference to Klaus Kinski, leading me down a mental chain that concluded with “I should watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)”. I had forgotten all about it within minutes, and yet, like a miracle, a copy of the film sits on my coffee table right now, waiting for its turn in my PlayStation.

I will note that — as seems increasingly the case with older, non-blockbuster films — Netflix does not stream either of these movies. But, rather than use the library, I could have fired up the ol’ Pirate Bay to grab my own illicitly ripped copy through the anonymous blessing of BitTorrent. As a younger man, I would have proceeded to do so without pause. But today the method offers much less attraction to me. First, I have to go through the whole, squinting process of nosing around to find a well-seeded torrent for the movie, then firing up my torrent program and letting it hog my home’s broadband pipe for a while. And then I end up with an enormous file squatting on a chunk of my hard drive, though I have no desire to watch it right now. As time passes, watching it feels increasingly like a nagging obligation, and I’m just as likely to put it out of mind through careless neglect, letting it sit in the dark, helping nobody.

How much different than borrowing a light plastic DVD in a colorful case, and letting it bide its time in my living room for a few days! I am far more likely to accept, during some near-future evening, its friendly but quietly insistent invitation to watch it.

And, I admit it, I feel good about using my library like this, supporting the system by incrementing its circulation and inter-library-loan statistics — and thus, goes the theory, its argument for sustained funding — with every disc I borrow. I started this adventure with The Shining, dating from the first few months of this blog’s existence, and also the first year of my rediscovery — the first time in my adult life, really — of public library patronage.

This magic did require some prerequisite work, all one-time labors completed years ago. I had to obtain a library card, obviously, and then finagle an online PIN for it. Then I had to teach my phone to auto-fill my card and PIN on the catalog website. For some reason, iOS wishes to store my library card number among my credit card numbers, and my PIN among my passwords — but it works, so there we have it. I recall acquiring the PIN as the tallest of these obstacles, given the website’s outdated notions of user experience. But I felt enough of an inkling of its life-improving potential to push through the task, and I dare say that I had it right.

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brian wisti

Yep I've been getting back into my local library and the local music / movie store for treat days. Even without big dramatic moves, "aw Netflix stopped streaming that show I was gonna watch" is a...

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