To flatten the curve of the spreading coronavirus, all nonessential services in New York City, where I live, are closed. But recently, without regard to social-distancing protocols, I paid multiple visits to two public libraries – online.

As libraries have reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic by shutting their doors and publicizing their digital collections, there’s been a surge in online traffic. So much that the New York Public Library now limits users to three loans and three holds.

Licensing agreements typically allow only one patron at a time to check out each copy of a digital title, and lately there seems to be increased competition for popular ones. This week, for example, when I tried to borrow Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House, from the Brooklyn Public Library, I found there was a 20-week wait for the audiobook version, which is performed by Tom Hanks. And, with any luck, the pandemic will be over by the time I reach my turn, also an estimated 20 weeks from now, to read Jenny Odell’s seemingly apropos book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

After putting holds on these titles – something the system easily lets you do – I found instant gratification by delving a bit deeper into my “Want to Read” list (for which I use the Goodreads app). The audiobook of How Fiction Works, written by James Wood and narrated by the professorial-sounding James Adams, was a soothing antidote to a night of corona-anxiety- induced sleeplessness. And by daybreak it had given me several ideas for other books to borrow.

Unfortunately, checking them out isn’t as simple, or as pleasant, as making an in-person visit to the nearest public library. But with a few clicks, you can be on your way, without even needing to wash your hands (yet again). Here’s what you need to know.

Preface. To get started, you need a library card (or more than one if you have access to multiple institutions). Since the largest selection of e-books are in Kindle format, you will want to download the free Kindle app. This enables you to read Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet or computer; contrary to popular misconception, you don’t need to own a Kindle device.

Whether or not you shop on, you need to have an account on the system to borrow Kindle library books. That’s because, when you follow the prompts on your library’s site to check out a Kindle e-book, it will take you to the Amazon website to complete the transaction. You must sign on to an Amazon account to do that. Then you download the book, just as you would if you were purchasing a Kindle book, except that you don’t have to pay.

In all other respects, a Kindle book borrowed from the library functions just like one you buy. Most notably, the book will sync between your devices, so that if the book has been downloaded on both your iPad and iPhone, for example, you can switch between the two without losing your place in the book. Family sharing also works, which comes in handy if you and your spouse or partner both want to read the same library book on your own devices.

Plot. Accessing the digital collections of public libraries gradually became easier after the introduction in 2017 of a free app called Libby, from OverDrive – the primary distributor of e-books and audiobooks to libaries. Libby is available for iOS and Android devices, as well as for Windows and Mac. Though at first it was so quirky that I preferred to continue using the original OverDrive app, the bugs have gradually been fixed and new features added.

With both apps, you must follow the prompts to find your library and sign in with your library card. Once you’ve entered this information, they link your cards to the app. Libby stores this information effectively, while with OverDrive you typically need to re-enter your account number when you want to borrow or place a hold on a book.

Suspense. As with the print editions of library books, the challenge is to finish the book by the time it’s due two or three weeks after you borrow it. (Loan times vary from one library to the next.) If someone else has put a hold on it, you won’t be able to renew, but you can always get in line to check it out again. And whether you’ve been reading an e-book or an audiobook, the app will open to where you left off. Amazing.

With holds, both OverDrive and Libby estimate when the title should be ready to borrow. If you don’t think you’ll be ready for it by then, you can extend the delivery date for as long as you want without losing your priority.

Narrative voice. Say you enjoy switching between the e-book and audiobook versions of a book as you read. Many books published by Amazon, either on the Audible platform or as a Kindle e-book, facilitate this with a feature called Whispersync. It marks your place on the version you have read most recently, and finds the corresponding spot when you open the other format. Whispersync can also work if you happen to own the Audible version of a book, and are reading the library e-book with the Kindle app.

You will need to go to a bit more effort if you have borrowed both the e-book and the audiobook from the library. The library’s audiobook platform, on Libby, won’t automatically sync with Kindle. But by using chapter headings on the audiobook and doing word searches in the e-book, you can navigate between the two. That approach was a cinch, for example, with Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out, and Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, Trick Mirror.

Happy ending. If you finish a book before it’s due, you can use the Libby or OverDrive app to return it early. That will delete it from your electronic devices and, in the time of Covid-19, give another member of your community a welcome, germ-free escape.

Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.


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