TOLEDO, Ohio - Charita Kizer toted a basketful of movies through the downtown library with one hand and her 3-year-old son with the other.
She picked up "Lion King 2" and "Lilo & Stich" for him and "Rapid Fire" for herself - all at no cost. "You have to wait for the new releases," she said. "But I'd rather wait than pay."
Libraries nationwide are competing with video stores, loaning out and investing more money in DVDs and videos. A few are even starting to charge borrowers too, to cover the costs of buying new releases.
At the library, the competition for the most popular movies can be intense. Crowds jockey alongside the return kiosk to snag new releases at the downtown library in Columbus, Ohio. The video section is packed on Friday afternoons at the library in West Caldwell, N.J.
"The shelves are pretty bare if you come on a Friday night wanting a video for the weekend," said April Judge, director of the West Caldwell library. About one of every four items checked out at Toledo's libraries is either a DVD or video, said Chris Kozak, a spokesman for the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Many people say they are turning to libraries for free movies and bypassing video stores along with rental fees and late charges. The West Caldwell library charges $2 for new movies, but Judge notes that is still cheaper than most rentals.
The number of video materials stocked by libraries nationwide has risen by 56 percent in four years, according to the most recent figures available from the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2000, the Toledo library circulated 104,639 DVDs. The number jumped to 807,169 by 2004.
The nation's two biggest movie-rental chains - Blockbuster Inc. and Movie Gallery Inc. - both said they have not seen any evidence that librarians are stealing their customers. They contend that they offer more convenience and better selection that libraries.
"While it may be a creative alternative, it's really not a threat to our business," said Blockbuster spokesman Blake Lugash.
Analyst Michael Pachter of Los Angeles-based Wedbush Morgan Securities said libraries can't match video stores in what they offer in new movies. He noted that on average, four out of five movies rented came out in the last six months.
Online-rental services such as Netflix Inc. are a bigger threat, said Dennis McAlpine, a video store analyst with Scarsdale, N.Y.-based McAlpine Associates. Even category-killer Wal-Mart Stores has recently gotten in the act with an online rental service offering unlimited rentals for $12.97 a month with no late fees.
It's not unusual, though, to find libraries filled with folks looking for cheap entertainment.
Tommy Seldon of Cleveland visits the downtown library across from his job almost daily.
"You save a lot of money and they have the same videos the stores have," said Seldon, carrying a bag filled with action movies through the Cleveland public library. The only downside, he said, is waiting for new releases.
College student Latisha Jones, of Toledo, said she doesn't go to the video store anymore. The biggest reason is the money she saves at the library.
"They have a lot of musicals here, too, that I can't find at the video store," she said.
The majority of libraries don't charge for movies, but the practice is allowed in some states, such as Michigan and Illinois, said Clara Bohrer, president of Public Library Association. Wisconsin legislators, responding to a public outcry, knocked down a proposal in 2002 that would have repealed a law requiring public libraries to offer their services for free.
Ohio lawmakers are considering allowing libraries to charge for services such as movies as a way to make up for a proposed cut in state funding. The Ohio Library Council opposes the idea.
"It undercuts the notion of free public libraries," said Lynda Murray, a lobbyist for the group.
"We forget public libraries are used by the range of people in the community," said Bohrer, also director of the West Bloomfield, Mich., library. "It doesn't matter if you can afford to pay."
The public library in Yorkville, Ill., charges $1 a week for DVDs - still much less than a video store, said library director, Michelle Pfister. The fee probably helps the circulation of movies because it means that patrons won't grab just any movie, leaving more films for others, she said.
Libraries also tend to place stiffer fines on late DVDs and videos than they charge for overdue books, encouraging faster turnover.
Opponents say people learn from many different forms of media, and that libraries shouldn't be loaning out romance novels at no cost while putting fees on Hollywood action flicks.
"There is a case that 'Spiderman 2' belongs on our shelf," said Kozak. "If that's what the public wants to see, there's a certain degree of responsibility that we should put the public funds to what they request."
On the Net:
Toledo-Lucas County Public Library: http://www.toledolibrary.org/
Ohio Library Council: http://www.olc.org/protectlibraryfunding.asp
American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/