I get it. Books can be expensive, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to be avid readers. In fact, you don’t have to spend a dime. That’s a big reason libraries exist, and with the embrace of modern technology, it has never been easier to take advantage of their services. Many libraries even allow you to get a library card entirely online, so you never actually have to go to the library.
I’m a big fan of libraries. Not only can you get free books, but their services often include free internet, resume editing, research assistance, and community classes. Many libraries have nonprofit community theater programs, cheap meeting rooms for community organizations, meetups for makers and crafters, and even kitchen utensil rental.
Today, I’m going to focus on the most common book rental services that libraries offer. Not every library will provide the same services, but you can be a member of multiple libraries. By joining more than one library, you can access more services, more checkouts, and different catalogs.
Overdrive, and it’s smartphone app Libby, was at one time the most common ebook lending service offered by libraries. It focuses on ebooks and audiobooks. The app is simple to use. There is, of course, a search function if you are looking for any book in particular. You can browse a library’s catalog by genre. Your library’s homepage will offer new and popular sections, but they have areas they can edit themselves. For example, one of the libraries I belong to currently has a section called “Antiracism: A Starter Booklist.”
Overdrive also makes it simple to read books you check out. You can read books in the app directly. Their ebook reader has all the standard features such as change the font and font size, highlighting, searching the text, and a dictionary. It is a little lacking in what it refers to as “Lighting.” This feature changes the colors of the font and background. The Libby app offers three options: Bright, the standard black text on a white background; Sepia, brown text on a tan background; and Dark, white text on a black background. I’m a little picky; most people will be entirely happy with these three options. However, I find the green alternative in many other reading apps is easier on my eyes. You can read books from Overdrive on Kindle and Kobo devices.
Listening to audiobooks in Libby offers a similar experience with the notable exception that you can only listen to them in the app. You cannot send audiobooks to a separate app or device. However, I have never had a problem with this restriction. Libby offers all the features I need in an audiobook app. You can skip between chapters, change the playback speed, and set a sleep timer. It even offers Android Auto support for easy listening while driving. Android Auto does have a drawback. You cannot load a new book in the Android Auto app; it will automatically try to load the book you are currently listening to. So you have to have listened to the audiobook in the main app before you load the app in Android Auto.
The library sets restrictions in the app. In my experience, the most common settings ten books on the shelf, ten books on hold, and a 14-day checkout period. That means that you can have ten books checked out to read at any given time, another ten on hold, and each book you have for 14 days at a time. Libraries can change these settings, so your experience may differ.
You might wonder why ebooks are on hold. They are digital, so the number of copies available shouldn’t be a concern. At issue here is licensing. In Overdrive, libraries purchase access to ebooks that they lend out in the app. If a library only acquired one copy of the book, it can only lend it to one person at a time. This is also why the catalog will change between libraries.
CloudLibrary has been around for a while, but it has gained more traction as a replacement for Overdrive. Overall, it works similarly to Overdrive. Its catalog operates the same way with the library offering a certain amount of simultaneous checkouts and holds. You can search for books as well as browse by genre. CloudLibrary allows you to select some genres as “favorites” to make navigating them quicker and simpler. The app, at least on Android phones, is laggier than Libby, so you have to be patient. Other than that, I’ve never had any problem with the app.
Reading ebooks in the app is also a similar experience to Libby. The font is limited to the publisher’s default. For most books, this is fine, but some publishers choose fonts that don’t display as well on screens as it does in print. You can change the font and margin size. The display colors are the same three as Libby but renamed to Day, Night, and Sepia. However, it has a significant difference when it comes to reading books on other devices. CloudLibrary offers epub format downloads of books you have checked out protects by Adobe Digital Editions. If you want to read the book on another device or another app, it needs to support both the epub file format and Adobe DRM. Kindle readers do not support either; however, Kobo e-readers do.
Listening to audiobooks is also similar. It offers the same standard features, such as a sleep timer and variable feedback. However, it does not have Android Auto or Apple CarPlay support. You can still listen in your car over other connections, such as Bluetooth, but it is not as convenient as being able to control the playback via the car’s display.
Hoopla differs from the previous two services in many ways. The most noticeable is in the products they offer. Their catalog is not limited to ebooks and audiobooks. It’s a full multimedia platform that provides e-comics, television shows, movies, and digital music albums. Hoopla does not offer download and transfer options. Anything you check out through Hoopla must be viewed/listened to in their app. If you want to watch movies or television shows you checked out on your TV, they offer apps for the most common streaming devices, including Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, and Chromecast.
It also differs significantly in how the catalog and borrowing works. Instead of the library buying access to digital goods, they can then lend to their patrons; they instead purchase access to the Hoopla catalog. This catalog is the same for every library. The library sets a monthly limit for how many borrows each patron gets a month. These borrows can be any type of media. If you borrow a book, that’s 1 borrow. A movie is another borrow. If you use the service to access multiple types of content, you can go through your monthly allowance of borrowers quickly. To combat this in the time of COVID, where most libraries are experiencing a higher demand for digital goods, Hoopla has introduced a “Bonus Borrow” program. Any media from the “Bonus Borrow” section does not count toward your limit. I assume this is a temporary program while libraries remain closed, so take advantage of it while you can.
Since you cannot download titles to open in another app, the Hoopla app experience becomes even more critical. Luckily, they came through with a great app experience. Discovery is easy. You can search for a title directly. Searches return results for all media that can then be filtered. You can also browse in all the expected ways.
The reading app works. You can change the font size and style in the app. It includes the dyslexic font face, which is supposed to help people with dyslexia read. You have to scroll down through the settings page to see the rest of the settings, which is a little unintuitive since it doesn’t indicate that it has more options than initially displayed. If you do scroll down, you’ll see theme options to change the colors, line spacing, margin size, text alignment, and a 2 column option if you prefer to hold your device horizontally.
Audiobooks also include the expected features. You can set a sleep timer, adjust playback speed, jump chapters, etc. Like CloudLibrary, it does not have Android Auto or Apple CarPlay support. This is unfortunate since the app is otherwise pretty awesome.
The comics reader is also excellent. You can filter by series and sort by issue to easily continue a series where you left off. The images display at high quality. If you are reading on a device with a smaller screen, like your phone, you can zoom in and read the comic panel by panel. This is similar to the “Guided View” feature in other comic reading apps such as Comixology. Just remember that you have a limited number of borrows a month and usually have 2 or 3 weeks to read your borrowed title. You can quickly eat through your borrows reading single-issue comics. I recommend finding the collected volumes in the app if you are reading back issues.
Last but not least, you could just check out a physical book. I know this is not as convenient as checking out an ebook from the comfort of your own home. Maybe you prefer reading a physical book. Perhaps the book you are interested in isn’t available in digital form. Most libraries allow you to search their catalog online so you can save yourself a trip if it isn’t available. If it’s checked out already or accessible from a different branch, many will allow you to place a hold or transfer request online.
Since I write this in the time of COVID with most libraries closed, it may be harder, if not impossible, for you to check out a physical book. Check with your local library. Many are offering contactless curbside pickup. You can place a hold or check out the book online. When it’s available, they can bring it out to your car. The process and availability of this service will vary depending on your library, so check ahead of time.