Skip the Library Trip, Borrow Ebooks and More at Home

Originally published at: Skip the Library Trip, Borrow Ebooks and More at Home - TidBITS

If you’re skittish about visiting a public library during a pandemic, ask about electronic borrowing you can do from home. Many US libraries provide digital versions of books, comics, and magazines, plus music downloads and streaming video options. Julio Ojeda-Zapata examines all the likely choices.

Annoyingly, Libby doesn’t run searches across multiple library systems automatically

Multilibrary search is available at Add the libraries to search across in the Libraries section of your account.

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Standard Ebooks is a great source for public domain books. It’s a completely open-source system with individuals volunteering to enter the books to exacting standards. Everything is semantically marked up in XML. The source files for all the books are on GitHub, so it appeals to the geek/programmer in me. I did one book and it was a lot of work. But those exacting standards make for beautiful results.


I think it bears mentioning that the digital services like overdrive use an outdated business model, required by the publishers. It costs the libraries more to buy digital books than paper books. Only one “copy” can be on loan at a time even though we know that, in fact, an unlimited number could be loaned at a time. In addition, libraries–or at least our library–has to replace the digital book (repurchase) after ~52 loans. Because, you know, those ones and zeros get worn out after a while.
I believe the libraries are doing all they can to get the publishers to relax a little. I think if the book reading public was more aware of these ridiculous practices, and are frustrated by lack of availability and long waits, it might be time we could be an additional source of pressure on publishers.

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Thanks for running an article on this topic — it is very timely. I had been using Libby on my iPhone and my iPad for about a year, but recently it stopped working properly. It had always seemed slightly unfinished, but then the search function seemed to get more restrictive, to the point that it would not locate titles that were already in my shelf as having been previously borrowed from the same institution (I was using these as a test, since I “knew” they were available). At the end it would not conduct any search at all — no matter what settings I used, it reported zero hits. I tried updating it — no joy. I finally deleted the app a few weeks ago and have been using Overdrive and Kindle Reader.

As well as libraries, the public domain archives can be fun to explore, but I have found some horribly formatted books that way — many completely unreadable, with hundreds of typos per page, as if they were raw output from the OCR program. I was glad to read that Standard Ebooks has higher standards.

Great points about the business model for these lending services, @dwclark47. It’s a tough situation, since libraries don’t have a ton of money and are largely taxpayer funded, but (speaking as someone with experience in this field) book publishers have plenty of financial challenges as well. Replicating the approach taken with paper books—such as “replacing” a digital copy—just seems stupid to me.

What would make more sense, I’d think, is to tie the payments made by libraries to the likes of OverDrive (and then on to the publishers) to actual usage (by page read, or completion of the book), with libraries getting to set caps so they don’t get unexpectedly large bills due to a bestseller.

This would be a lot more like music, where (as far as I know) all songs are treated roughly equally when it comes to streaming royalties.

That’s really odd, and it might be worth following up with OverDrive tech support, if such a thing exists. I’ve had occasional issues with Libby over the years, but they always go away in updates, and it’s working very well for me right now.

Yes, I had a conversation with Libby support, but they didn’t seem to grasp the problem. They thought I was complaining that the titles I wanted were not available in my library system, and kept referring me to my local librarian. At the time I contacted support, some searches still worked, but with glaring gaps. It is hard to quantify or document a negative response, but this is an example of the problem: I was following two prolific mystery authors. Each had over a dozen ebook titles available (when I started using Libby). After checking out 2 or 3 books apiece over the course of a few months, my searches for these authors started coming up blank — they would show zero titles available — not even the ones I had previously borrowed and returned. Then this effect snowballed, to where entire genres showed zero titles (for example, Adult, Nonfiction, Science). Finally, I was unable to use Search at all — before I could even enter a title or genre, it would display the error message “Search finds no results. Try a different setting”. But I couldn’t access the search preferences from that screen. At that point I felt I had to delete the app. The reinstall on my iPad didn’t change anything. BTW, this happened simultaneously on my iPhone and iPad, so it was seemed to be account-based rather than install-based. I will probably try it again sometime, maybe after the next iPadOS update. In the meantime, using Overdrive plus Amazon for Kindle downloading is rather clumsy.

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That is nasty—sorry to hear it. I wonder what would happen if you made another account.

That sounds like a good idea. But the account is based on my library card number, which isn’t going to change, so I wonder if it’s even possible to set up a “new” account, even I wanted to use a different email address. Maybe I can ask support to reset my account.

The New York Times just published a piece that covers some of this ground too.

It was pointed out to me that OverDrive has acquired RBdigital, meaning the latter service’s digital magazines will meld with OverDrive’s book catalogue. I chalk that up as a huge win since OverDrive (via its Libby app) is more user-friendly than RBdigital’s mobile and desktop-web apps. I’m excited about this!

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