E-Book Borrowing: What You Need to Know

Things to remember about reading library books on your e-reader

Picture of lots of library books in a circular formation

Say hello to library borrowing in the 21st century. Although the old-school way of borrowing remains a useful and viable way to check out some titles, one of the more useful aspects in making the switch from dead-tree books to an e-reader should be the ability to easily borrow e-books from public libraries as well.

When borrowing e-books, you don’t have to leave your home, you don’t have to worry about late charges, there are no missing pages or tattered covers, you don't have to scour the internet for free e-book downloads, and there are never any worries about where that book might have been.

Amazon e-reader owners have three options for borrowing books with their Kindle, including having others share their Kindle books.

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Borrowing an E-Book Isn't Always Simple

E-reader image
Tim Robberts via Getty Images

Format issues and Digital Rights Management (DRM) make borrowing an e-book much more complicated than it needs to be, and most libraries are proceeding cautiously with the new technology, so their e-book collections are a fraction of their physical book collections. It doesn't help that publishers are trying to add in restrictions that make e-books less attractive to libraries.

There’s also a misconception that an e-book means unlimited borrowing (i.e., once the library buys a copy, it may be lent out to whoever wants it since it’s a file that can be repeatedly copied). The reality is that digital copies are treated exactly the same as physical copies, so once a copy is out on loan, no one else can borrow it until it is “returned.”

Still, when the stars line up, it’s a nice option for a library to loan e-books for free so that you can get a pristine copy of a bestseller to read on your own e-reader instead of having to pony up the several bucks to buy it yourself.

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Understanding Digital Copies

Picture of an ebook, a drink, a notebook, and a pair of glasses on a table

Here are some issues to consider when understanding how digital copies of books work:

Are E-Books Available?
Not all libraries offer digital borrowing. Your library’s website will have a link to e-books or digital books if the service is available.

Membership Requirement
This is a minor issue, but you are required to have a membership at a library in order to borrow e-books. Many offer 30-day trial memberships online, so you can try it out without having to commit or trudge down to the branch.

Some libraries may allow guest members to live outside of their local area, but publishers are working on tightening up this loophole.

Internet Access Requirement
The typical e-book borrowing setup requires the library customer to have their own computer and internet access. This will present a challenge for anyone wanting to read a library book on an e-book but don't have internet.

Most libraries use technology supplied by OverDrive to handle their e-book operations. According to OverDrive, thousands of libraries worldwide are currently using its system.

The company uses Adobe DRM protection for e-books to limit unauthorized use, and that’s where things get really confusing.

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Device Compatibility & Software

Picture of a woman reading an e-book on a tablet device

The file formats available are DRM-protected EPUB and PDF, and while there’s solid support for reading these e-books on a Windows PC or Mac (as well as various devices via apps), file formats remain the bane of e-readers.

Sony e-readers are supported, as are all NOOK models, Kobo e-readers, and Amazon’s Kindle. A full list of what's compatible and what's not is available on the Overdrive website.

Assuming you’ve passed all the restrictions listed above (you have a computer, internet access, a library membership, and a compatible e-reader), you’re off to the races. Well, almost.

To access those DRM protected files, you have to download and install ​Adobe Digital Editions software on your computer. Your library will likely provide a link to the download site. Adobe gives you the option of activating Digital Editions anonymously, but that’s only useful if you’ll be reading borrowed e-books exclusively on that computer.

You must create an Adobe ID in order to transfer borrowed e-books from the computer to another device, such as your e-reader. 

Once you’ve installed and activated Adobe Digital Editions on your computer, connect your e-reader to your computer with a USB cable and the software will give you the option of authorizing your e-book reader. When this step is completed, you're finally able to borrow the e-books and transfer them to your e-reader.

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E-Book Borrowing, Holds, and Wish Lists

Turning page of an e book with an iBook reader on an iPad mini tablet computer

 Iain Masterton/Getty Images

After all the hoops you’ve had to jump through to this point, the process of borrowing an e-book might seem almost too easy. The OverDrive interface is obviously rooted in e-commerce (complete with the shopping cart and checkout analogy), but it’s relatively straightforward.

From your computer, navigate to your library’s e-book section and log in with your membership account. You’ll be presented with a list of its e-book collection broken into categories. Each e-book title will have a helpful descriptive box beneath that shows the format along with the option to borrow the book or add it to your wish list.

Screenshot showing how to borrow a library book to read on an e-reader

If the e-book has already been checked out by someone else, Borrow is replaced by Place a Hold. To save on frustration, do an advanced search and select Available now from the Availability drop-down menu. This option filters the results so you see only the e-books that are currently available.

If all available copies of the e-book you want to borrow have been checked out, you can place a hold on it. The next time someone returns a copy, you’ll be notified by e-mail that the title is now available and you’ll have a set time (typically three days, although this does vary) to check out the e-book before it’s released and available to anyone.

The Wish List saves titles you might be interested in at a later date.

To check out an e-book, click Borrow and proceed to checkout. You’ll be prompted for your library membership, then the e-book will download to your computer and will appear on the Borrowed bookshelf in Adobe Digital Editions. Plug in your e-reader and you’ll be able to transfer the title from the Adobe Digital Editions library to your e-reader.

The process of returning an e-book is simple and one of the great advantages of borrowing e-books from the library compared to the traditional way of doing it. Put simply, you don’t have to do a thing; when your borrowing period expires (anywhere from seven to 21 days), the book is deleted from your Adobe Digital Editions library.

On your e-reader, the book is marked as expired, making it rather useless (you won't be able to read it), but you’ll have to manually delete that copy when you get tired of seeing it. There’s no lugging books back to the library, no risk of losing a borrowed book, and never any late fees. 

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