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Library E-Lending Is Usable!

Back in 2011, Michael Cohen wrote about libraries lending ebooks in “OverDrive, Bluefire, and the EPUBlic Library,” (18 February 2011). At the time, the main apps for borrowing ebooks from public libraries were OverDrive and Bluefire. Unfortunately, as I then commented, the whole experience was such a cobbled-together mess that it didn’t really work. Browsing library collections was painful, few books I wanted to read were available for downloading, and most of those were distributed solely in PDF format that was just a little too large to fit on an iPad screen.

The good news for those of us who like to read ebooks and appreciate the services of our local public libraries is that borrowing ebooks from libraries has at last reached the “awkward but feasible” stage. I am happily reading a library book on my iPad and iPhone today, and with just a little effort, you can probably do so as well.

How Ebook Lending Works — You’re likely aware that ebooks come in a number of different formats, including PDF, EPUB, Kindle, and HTML. The layout-oriented PDF remains common and is the preferred format of the majority of readers when given the choice. EPUB is a reflowable format that works well on small screens; it’s used by Apple’s iBooks app on the iPhone and iPad. There are actually multiple Kindle formats, but the specifics don’t affect readers. And some books are made available in straight HTML, which differs from the other three in one notable fashion: no digital rights management can be applied. Most ebooks sold by Amazon for the Kindle and Apple for iOS devices are encrypted with DRM, preventing buyers from reading them on other devices or sharing them with other people. Many smaller ebook retailers avoid DRM because it annoys customers.

Library ebooks generally come in Kindle, EPUB, and PDF formats, and are nearly always encrypted with DRM, with the added restriction of a due date that enables the library to treat the ebook just like a traditional print book. This requirement has been handed down from publishers, and forces libraries to buy a certain number of “copies” of an ebook, and to lend out no more than that number. If you don’t check an ebook back in to the library’s Web site before its due date, it “expires” automatically, preventing you from reading further and allowing another patron to check it out. It’s more than a little bit odd, but libraries don’t have much negotiating power with publishers.

I had the best look with OverDrive Media Console, an iOS app that supports many libraries. OverDrive has two main components: a web client used for account management and a reader component. Management includes signing into the OverDrive online service (which handles page sync between devices), signing into library Web sites to search catalogs and check books in & out, and signing into an Adobe ID account, used to manage ebook DRM.

Last time I tried to borrow digital books from the library, most books were in PDF format — they didn’t fit properly on the iPad’s screen — and font sizes were not adjustable. This time my libraries have books in encrypted EPUB and Kindle formats, so they fit properly on the iPad/iPhone/Kindle screens and fonts are configurable.

Kindle library books are interesting. Libraries know many of their users like to read on Kindles and the Kindle apps, which run on iOS, Android, OS X, and Windows, among others. Amazon offers direct Kindle integration with libraries, providing an alternative ‘checkout’ process for Kindle ebooks. Rather than downloading an ebook directly, the user is directed to login to Amazon, where they get a “free” Kindle ebook “purchase.” Amazon tracks the ebook, so it can be read on all the user’s Kindle devices with Amazon Whispersync to track progress through the book.

Alternatively, Amazon Prime members can borrow books from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library to read on a physical Kindle (whether E Ink or Fire — Kindle apps need not apply). The Library offers a range of popular books free, with some annoying restrictions. The selection is limited. I found the first books in many series — good teasers, and readers who like them are likely to buy sequels. Second, only one book can be borrowed at a time, although there is no “due date”, which is nice. Third, only one book can be borrowed per month, presumably to keep heavy readers buying most of their ebooks. The Library is also annoyingly hard to access. When searching Amazon in a browser, many books have a $0.00 ‘borrow’ option, but I don’t see it very often (presumably due to the size of their catalog). The Library catalog is accessible on Kindle devices, but can be hard to find. It is under the Kindle’s menu, but only visible in certain locations. It looks like the Library currently contains 600,000 titles. (There’s also the $9.99 per month Kindle Unlimited service, which Josh Centers compared against his local library in “FunBITS: Kindle Unlimited Is Pretty Limited,” 1 August 2014.)

What Didn’t Work — Bluefire Reader is another ebook reader mentioned in TidBITS’s original ebook article. Unfortunately it doesn’t integrate with libraries directly, so to use it you need to use a desktop Web browser to register with a library Web site, download an .acsm file (a link to the copy-protected ebook), download the actual ebook with Adobe Digital Editions on the Mac or PC, and then transfer that ebook to Bluefire Reader on your mobile device (assuming you can). Bluefire details how to navigate the process, but I found the whole thing overly complicated.

I also tried 3M Cloud Library, but the Mac software was missing and the iOS software was unable to see books I had already checked out, or find the books I wanted in the Brooklyn Public Library.

OverDrive Media Console is supposed to track which library books I have checked out across devices, but this didn’t work. I had to download the book twice, once on iPad and again on iPhone. Fortunately this worked, OverDrive detected the match, and tracked reading progress across devices, but I was confused and wondered if people are ever unable to check out the book a second time because the library thinks it’s already checked out to the first device. It also doesn’t appear to offer searching for words in the text, which is exasperating. On my iPad mini with Retina display and iPhone 5s, OverDrive got stuck several times turning the page. Nothing happened for about 10 seconds, at which point it caught up and processed previous taps.

Catalog searching was poor. I’d like to search a catalog of only ebooks, set notifications when titles become available (called a ‘hold’ in library parlance), and make lists of books to read in the future. In the iBooks Store and Amazon, when I find a book I want to buy later, I download a free sample. When I finish a book, I can look at the samples to see which are $10 or cheaper and buy one. Library catalogs aren’t so organized. My workaround was to create a ‘library’ shelf at Goodreads and track library books I know are available there. There is no point in checking out an ebook if I won’t be able to finish it in 14 days, just like there’s no point buying a book for $15 if it will be $10 before I actually get around to reading it…

I am sure there are libraries with better catalog Web sites, and some with worse sites, but I have no idea which.

Library Web sites in general seem not to be very well designed. I had to log in many times, in both Web browsers and OverDrive. I had to jump back and forth between apps too much. Libraries tend to show paper books, which were mostly just annoying when I was looking exclusively for ebooks.

Because many libraries (including the Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library, where I am a member) use BiblioCommons, Safari and 1Password got confused about which password to supply. They each offer 14-day loans, which are fine for short novels but might not work for longer books or busier readers.

Helpful folks offer browser plugins to help find library books, both ebooks and paper. For example, when Library Extension for Google Chrome notices you looking at an Amazon book detail page, it looks the book up at your libraries and shows whether you can borrow paper or electronic editions.

Other Options — I saw many mentions of audio and video items to borrow, and both OverDrive and my libraries apparently support them, but I didn’t try.

Everyone who reads ebooks should check out Project Gutenberg, which contains completely free and unrestricted copies of many books — without limitations on borrowing or returning.

Conclusion — Borrowing ebooks is (intentionally) less convenient than buying them, but it’s an excellent way to save money on ebooks, and in 2014 quite workable.

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