Subscribe to your Library. It’s Free! Skip Kindle Unlimited. Skip AppleNews+.

If you are a reader, chances are you own an e-reader or have a reading app…or at least have considered it.

What you may not know is that libraries have a truly astounding amount of digital resources available to you, and they get easier to use all the time.

Commercial services you may not actually need include Kindle Unlimited and Apple News +.

If your local library doesn’t meet all of your needs, look into purchasing a library digital membership through another public library system. More and more libraries are expanding their funding, and they resources they offer, by making their digital services available for a small fee…far less than Kindle Unlimited and with far better quality for the end user.

Also, you are helping to support an important public resource that exists pretty much just to help people improve their lives through education, no matter who they are.

For more information on this, read this earlier post: Why the American Public Library is the Foundation of our Democracy

I am not a professional librarian; what I am is a Book Junkie with good reference skills.

So this is The Lois Level’s unauthorized guide to digital library services, or The Mother Lode of Free Stuff.

Break Down of Commercial Apps vs. Library Apps

Overdrive v. Amazon/Barnes & Noble

Think of Overdrive as roughly equalling Amazon or Barnes & Noble except in return for not having to pay for the books, you have to wait your turn for the limited number of e-copies they have. Kind of the same idea for recorded books and Audible.

So Overdrive is like sharing your Amazon/Kindle account with all the residents of your city rather than just your family, if that makes sense.

Every library’s Overdrive is different: the content available is the content the library has purchased. More or less material and the choice of material is subject to the library’s budget.

I use three different libraries. Overdrive is integrated to the main catalog in different ways, but it’s easy and smooth for all three. I can download straight to my Kindle from the library catalog and easily send my borrowed e-books to my regular Kindle homepage/app from the Overdrive app.

I can load all three libraries onto Overdrive and easily toggle between them.

If you aren’t finding the books you want through the library of your residency, you may benefit from checking into other libraries in your area that will give you a free card and digital access, or you can check out libraries that have paid memberships (list below).

If you do a paid library membership, it’s roughly the same as getting Kindle Unlimited, except Kindle Unlimited is filled with self-published e-books, older books, and books that they want to promote. Again, it’s a commercial enterprise.

Overdrive has books that librarians have selected based on their budget and user demographic, so it’s like they are your book personal shoppers.

Amazon frequently discounts Kindle Unlimited, so in purely financial terms, the cost can be close, so it comes down to what you want to read.

Conclusion: Overdrive is the way to go for e-books and audiobooks. Easy to use. Almost seamless integration with Kindle. Great selection of current books, depending on the library.

Note: If your library doesn’t have Overdrive, contact your neighboring cities and counties to see if they issue cards to nonresidents. Some library systems have reciprocity agreements, and some will issue you a free card if you are employed there. If all else fails, apply for a paid card…see the Free Resource below for a list. Multiple library cards gives you access to more books on Overdrive.

Hoopla v. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime + Every Free e-book Resource

Hoopla is basically a subscription service that you don’t have to pay for. Hoopla has the same content for every registered patron of every library. You also never have to wait your turn; if they have it, you can access it anytime.

So the video part is just like Netflix etc. Many of the books available are usually the same books you could get through Amazon or any of the free book sites for free.

They also have some new books available. Oddly, they do not show up in the main library catalog, although e-books from the other services do. So if you can’t find something you’re looking for in the main library catalog, look in Hoopla.

The catch with Hoopla is that you are limited by your library to a certain number of resources every month. There also seems to be a daily limit on the total number of checkouts all of your library’s uses can have; I’ve found myself blocked for that reason too.

Conclusion: I pay my subscription dollars to Netflix and Hulu for video because I want current, quality content. I can get a lot of Hoopla’s books more easily through Amazon, for free. I would only bother with Hoopla if I really need something that is only available there or money is really tight.

RB Digital v. Apple News

Update May, 2021: RB Digital’s content has gone over to Overdrive/Libby and has gotten easier to use. If your library is still using RB Digital, it is only a matter of time before it switches. Not all libraries subscribe to this service, even if they use Overdrive. Contact your library to request it.

The big thing about RB Digital is that you can download a range of current, general interest commercial magazines to read on your phone, tablet, or computer. The number of magazines is different depending on what your home library chooses, but you will find plenty of titles.

This feature is amazing because it used to be that you generally had to sit in the library if you wanted to read magazines, and now you don’t.

Except for the feature where AppleNews+ pulls out articles for you in a news feed, RB Digital exactly replicates it. And this of the features of AppleNews+ is available for free anyway, just without the premium content.

I love to browse and flip through magazines, so I love this feature…I can just read my favorite columns and articles without having to choose a subscription or feel obligated to read the whole thing.

You need wifi access to download the magazines, but not to open them once they are downloaded, so you can read them anywhere while you are airplane mode.

There is no wait list for the magazines; in fact, I have my favorites set to download automatically.

Other Content on RB Digital

My experience with the RB Digital app, however, is that it doesn’t work very well, and unless there is something you really want and can’t find any other way, I would stick to the magazines.

There are e-books and audio books. In theory, I can download them from the main library catalog, but in practice it doesn’t really work well.

Also, as far as I can tell, you can’t read the e-books from a regular Kindle, only from within the app on a Kindle Fire (or other phone/tablet).

There are some online courses, and you also might have a language learning app (although I have trouble getting that to work). British television is available through Acorn TV.

Conclusion: I like RB Digital for magazines; the app is too much of a mess to bother with anything else. I might try Acorn TV. The educational materials I can find for free elsewhere without the technical problems (although I do wish I could get the language app to work).


How to Access the Digital Materials in your Library

Use your library’s general catalog if you want to see all print books, audio books, and e-books in one place.

Note: this is a general overview because every library system sets up its own homepage and organizes things a bit differently.

If you have any problems, no need to navigate some massive online support system, you can just call your local library (during operating hours). You will get an actual person in your actual town, or you can just head down there and get help in person.

What a luxury, right?

Note: If you go to the library for help, bring your devices. They will probably set you up on the spot.

  1. If you have a laptop, start off on that.

  2. Find your library’s home page. If your city/county is small, you might most easily find it through the city/county government web site.

  3. Log in by using the number from your library card and your PIN.

    If you don’t know your PIN, call the library; usually, they have a set format for default PINs they can tell you over the phone.

  4. On the page, they usually have a library catalog button somewhere, and they will probably have some other buttons/menus showing the other materials they have. I personally can find this confusing, but don’t worry, most libraries now show all the versions of the books they offer through their regular catalog, so if you want e-books or recorded books, you can just use the regular catalog.

Be sure you pay close attention to the formats available, or you might be putting print books on hold rather than e-books!

Most E-books and audio books will show up in the main catalog, regardless of the app they can be found on. In my library system, books from Overdrive and RB Digital show up there, but books from Hoopla do not.

I found it difficult to download a book from the online catalog through RB Digital. In my library, I can tell when it’s an RB Digital book because the file type says “Epub”.

Overdrive e-books list a bunch of different forms for download, including Kindle.

If you should decide to download a book from RB Digital, use your app on your smartphone or tablet.

If you really want a particular e-book or audio book, double check Hoopla and/or RB Digital directly through their site or app before paying for it elsewhere.

6. Usually there is an area on the webpage that says “My Account”. You can click on that, and it will show you your “holds” and your “check outs”. You may have to find the tab for “digital” and “print”.

7. Depending on the way the library’s catalog works, you may be able to check out e-books right from the catalog, or you may get routed through Overdrive and Hoopla and have to sign in to those sites.

8. If you use a Kindle, Overdrive will send you to Amazon for the book download. You will feel like you’re purchasing an e-book, but you don’t have to pay. Awesome, right?

Note: I’m sorry, I just don’t do Nook (Barnes & Noble’s e-reader). I think it is more difficult to use with Overdrive.

Accessing E-books and Audiobooks from a smartphone or tablet

There are three apps you will need if you want to access your library’s e-books and audio books only, not print books.

  1. Overdrive and/or Libby (same content, different interface); currently no Libby app available for Kindle Fire

  2. Hoopla: Hoopla e-books, video, other content

  3. RB Digital: Magazines, video, e-learning, audio books, e-book

Out of these, I prefer Overdrive for e-books and audio books and RB Digital for magazines only.

So I also see this thing called Libby? What’s that?

Libby is a new app released by Overdrive. Choose EITHER the Overdrive or Libby app; you don’t need both.

Libby is supposed to be friendlier to use, but it needs to catch up to the full range of features offered by the Overdrive App (such as multiple languages, subject to change). At this writing, there is no Libby app for the Kindle Fire.

If you have a Kindle Fire, you might want to stick to the Overdrive App for both your phone and Fire so that you don’t have to switch interfaces, which gets confusing.

You really only NEED the app to search for books; once you download them they go right to your regular Kindle content page.

Kindle v. Kindle Fire and your library

Kindle*: Overdrive books can be downloaded either through a laptop, smartphone, or tablet to your kindle wirelessly, but you cannot search the Overdrive catalog and download books on the Kindle* itself.

*Basic Kindle, Paperwhite, and Oasis

Once you download the books, they appear on your regular home screen/library with your samples and purchased Kindle books.

The library books will automatically disappear (and a note from Amazon will appear) the first time your Kindle connects to the Internet after the loan period ends. If you leave your Kindle on airplane mode, they won’t disappear until you take it off airplane mode.

Any notes or highlights you make in the book will magically appear if you download the book to your Kindle again in the future, either through check out or purchase. I guess the notes must stay in your Kindle account.

Hoopla and RB Digital books can’t be read outside the app, as far as I can tell. I think RB Digital may have a method, but RB Digital overall is very buggy, so I wouldn’t bother.

Kindle Fire: Overdrive, Hoopla, and RB Digital all have apps for Kindle Fire, and you can use all features on the Kindle Fire.

The Libby app, which is simply different packaging for Overdrive, does not have a Kindle Fire App.

I mainly use the Kindle Fire for reading magazines on RB Digital.

Free Resource

Check out this guide from Weighty Words on The Best Nonresident Library Cards for Overdrive Access

Note: Brooklyn Public Library offers the biggest catalog for the money.

Library Extension for Chrome

I have put this little gem, that I found on Black and Bookish, right at the bottom of this post for those of you who made it through the whole thing.

This extension automatically detects whenever you appear to be viewing books and also automatically searches all of your libraries to see where the book is available.

Who needs Siri and Alexa?