Getting Free eBooks From the Library is Overrated

The eBook

One of the biggest draws and selling points of Adobe DRM-supporting ereaders, especially the Sony Readers, is that you can checkout ebooks for free from your local library to read on them. This applies to most ereaders and tablets on the market, all except the Kindle and a few no name brands.

The service is provided by a company called OverDrive and is available in the United States and several other countries. Some time back I wrote an article on how to get free ebooks from libraries.

But now as ereaders are becoming more popular and more people are turning to the library as a source for ebooks, the limitations of the service has become much more obvious.

Here are five problems I’ve noticed with getting free ebooks from libraries.

#1. Limited number of copies and waiting lists. Like paper books, libraries have a limited number of copies of each ebook that they can lend out. My local library has 2000+ ebooks, not counting the 15000+ public domain titles. I searched through 30+ pages and every single ebook I could find was checked out. Some have a short waiting list but not the popular titles. Those have waiting lists of several months.

#2. 21 Days. Most ebooks’ max rental period is 21 days or less. Unless no holds are pending, if you don’t get the book finished in that time you’ll have to get back in line and wait for it to become available again.

#3. No library ebooks. #1 sounds pretty good if you don’t have any library ebooks to choose from at all where you live. In that case you can sometimes get a library card from a few non-local libraries but that can bring up other problems, #1 and #4 for instance.

#4. Fees for library cards. A few libraries that have ebooks offer library cards to out-of-state and non-local residents for an annual fee. (Some of these libraries are listed on the how to page mentioned above if you want to try them.)

#5. Poor selection and random selection. A lot of publishers aren’t on board with library ebooks. Couple that with the newness of ebooks and the fact that many libraries don’t have the funding for expanding their collection or even adding a collection. Additionally, the randomness of ebooks available leaves you scratching your head (at my library, at least). They’ll have the #3 or #6 book in a series but not #1, even if it’s from the same publisher.

Despite these drawbacks, getting ebooks for free is a nice perk. But it makes you wonder moving forward if libraries will be able to keep up with the demand for ebooks with the explosion of ereaders and tablets coming onto the market, especially with many publishers and authors feeling uncomfortable about library ebooks to begin with.

14 Responses to “Getting Free eBooks From the Library is Overrated”

  1. You took the words right out of my mouth. I’ve experienced the same issues trying to get library books for my iPad with the overdrive app. This is to say nothing about the how kludgey the download process can be.

  2. grumpy old troll January 17, 2011 at 10:28 am

    wait, let me get this straight, you’re complaining about a free service? bleh.

  3. Except it is not a “free” service. It is part of your public library system, so your taxes pay for it – which I am fine with, and which I wish they would get more funding for programs like this. It seems to me it would behoove libraries to invest more in this type of digital technology. My library is on the system, but the books available are mediocre at best.


  4. Let’s see if we can address these salient points:

    #1. Limited number of copies and waiting lists.
    Obviously a person who has little experience with a brick and mortar library system would always expect the very books they desire to be instantly available for them when they walked through the door. Why indeed should I ever have to wait for what I want. Reminds me of Veruca Salt of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame.

    #2. 21 Days.
    Too short a time for you to read a book? Well maybe you shouldn’t check it out until you can manage to arrange enough free time to read it in 3 weeks.

    #3. No library ebooks.
    Being at the bottom of the funding trough of virtually all municipal systems and at the top when it comes to cutting costs, libraries seldom have a lot of money to fund all of the programs they want to support. Libraries have never been at the bleeding edge of technology but usually react to public demand as they are able. 50 years ago, it was just books, magazines, and newspapers. Then it added audio books, videos, computer access, music, and now ebooks. And through all of that, their funding never keeps pace with the ever increasing demand. In reaction to public demand the library systems in my section of the state have joined forces in an attempt to acquire ebooks for their patrons. It’s a late start and they have only 541 ebooks the last I checked, and this for a huge population. Is there any wonder why there were only 26 books available for download the last I checked?

    #4. Fees for library cards.
    Sorry if your library system doesn’t have ebooks. Not many had downloadable books (Overdrive) 2 years ago. Before I learned that I had access to my neighbor states over 8000 ebooks, I paid a small fee to join The Free Library of Philadelphia to gain access to their 4141 books.

    #5. Poor selection and random selection.
    No! Publishers don’t like libraries – never have and never will. After all, it does cut into their profits. And until you get you degree and start running your own library, I suspect you’ll never see the “proper” selection of books available at your library.

    I have been using an ereader of one form or another for five years now and have yet to purchase a book. With any luck, all the Veruca Salts out there will get frustrated and give up on the libraries and get their instant fix from the many bookstores more than willing to take their money.

    Free Library of Philadelphia: 4141
    Tennessee State Library: 8055
    SWVA Public Libraries: 541
    Gwinnett County Library: 1202

  5. I LOVE being able to check out books from the library, its saved me bundles of money. Twelve Dollars for an ebook is outrageous! My complaint to the library is that they need to stop allowing people to check out 10 ebooks at a time, like the poster above, the new ebooks were always gone. It just took a couple of patrons to eliminate the small new selection.

    Its a Minor gripe tho, would not want an ebook reader that didn’t allow library access.

  6. I love this feature! The funny thing is that I’ve borrowed more library books in the year that I’ve owned my Sony readers than I did in the previous 15 years. Library use used to be a bit of an inconvenience, but not any more.

    Before buying an ebook, I’ve made it a practice to check the library’s web site first. If the book happens to be there, I’ve just saved $5 to $15. This alone makes the cost of the hardware a no-brainer for me.

    As often as not there is indeed a wait list, but that’s no big deal since there are plenty of other books to read while waiting.

  7. My library system allows me to check out up to 8 books at a time. I never do, because I can’t read THAT many in 21 days. Oh, and 21 days limit to check out a book? If you can’t read a book in 21 days, why did you fork out the money for an e-reader. As for “paying” for a library card, $15 to $20 per year to be able to read as many library books that you want still beats buying books. And I must say, the convenience of downloading books to my computer, and loading them on my Sony Reader, has let me read WAY more library books this past year than I would have otherwise.

  8. I have been a member of the Houston Digital Media site for about 3 years.(16 member libraries). There is a limit of 5 books to check out. Additionally I have a Houston & Harris County Library card (both free). I read at least a book a week. I have no problem with waiting for a hard copy or an ebook (I like free). I generally have 6-8 in the pipeline. So, even with the economic constraints that a library operates under, they are an undervalued resource.

  9. I love the library system, have never bought a book, and that was the reason I bought the ereader that I did, so I could use the library. One of our county library systems just started providing ebooks this past July, with 400 books available, and they now have 4700. Also, I don’t keep the correct date on my ereader, so a library book stays on mine indefinately (until I’m done reading it), as long as I don’t connect the ereader to a computer and it automatically syncs up the correct date. Of course, it is automatically checked back into the library from my computer after the allowed 2 wks.

  10. Own a Kindle and love it. Bought a Sony Reader just to be able to borrow books from the public library. The County of L.A. Overdrive collection was difficult to search and I could find no books available. All had wait lists. Went through all subjects and found just a handful of books. Waste of time using the ebook public library. I’m a great fan of libraries for borrowing physical books not ebooks. Sony Reader purchase was a waste of money since available ebooks are scarce at the L.A County Library.

  11. 1, 2, and 5 are problems that occur with any library, as any person that uses a traditional library would know. Libraries have few copies of new books, and the popular ones typically always have waiting lists. You get it for 3 weeks and you can’t re-check out a book if someone else has a hold on it.
    As for 3 and 4, I would suggest checking out your library’s selection while you are researching which e-reader to purchase. I knew before I bought my Nook that my library had a great e-book selection. When you’re dealing with a “free” service such as a library, you kind of have to take what’s handed to you. If you don’t want to wait or can’t find the book you want, then buy it!

  12. When I got my eReader on Black Friday the ability to check out library books was the biggest factor in selecting the B&N nook over the Kindle. Luckily my local library has embraced the ebook technology.

    Limited number of copies, waiting lists, and 21 Day checkouts all also apply to traditional books from libraries too. I’ve put holds in on not-yet-released books and not gotten my notification from the library that there’s finally a copy available for me until weeks or even months after the book is released. If a book is popular and someone is waiting for it, it can’t be renewed so you are still limited to 21 days.

    To me it seems like the request queue would move faster for ebooks than for print books. When your request is available you can get it immediately, even if the library isn’t open. You can return it as soon as you are done reading it and the next person in line then gets immediate notification. Not only do you not have to wait the 2+ days for the library to process the physical copy in and transfer it to the location for the next pickup, you never have people hanging on to their copy for more than the 3 weeks just because they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet because it’s always returned on time, if not early.

    As for fees to get non-resident cards, you have to look at their selection first and see if you think you will check out enough books from them to make it worth it. If you have to pay $30 for a card, and most ebooks would be $9.99 for you to buy, then your 4th book you checkout that year is already saving you money.

  13. Bought the Sony Pocket Edition because of library books. It’s small. I can read on the underground. The San Francisco library has a decent ebook collection. If I can’t finish a book in 3 weeks, I write down what page I am on and a little note about where I left off and get back in line for the book (Would that I did that with physical books I put down).

    Agree with points about popular books; real or virtual, you have to wait to get a library copy. I still take physical books out of the library and buy books. Wish I could return an ebook when I was through even if not due yet so next person could check it out.

    Sony paid for itself in 2 months (got on sale) with commute books not bought, plus I have read books on my commute I might never have read; the limited selection has produced “discoveries” like ‘McMafia’ and ‘San You’re One of Them’. Who knew? The limits have gotten me out of my comfort zone.

  14. Some libraries, mine included, have the freading service in addition to overdrive. You can look at it and read about it at There is no waiting at all for these books, and they can be renewed immediately. This is because multiple people can read the same book simultaneously. The freading service is similar to overdrive in that multiple libraries use it. If your library uses it, check it out. It’s nice not to have to wait