I’ve been a fan of ebooks for many years, starting with Peanut Press books on my Handspring Visor Deluxe back around 1999. After writing code for 9 hours/day for many years, you can imagine my wrists were shot, and I loved ebooks because they weren’t as heavy and hard to hold as a physical book. Most public libraries didn’t lend ebooks back then, so I eventually resigned myself to purchasing everything I wanted to read. When the Sony readers started supporting borrowing books from libraries, I checked to see what titles were available in the Greensboro library – basically none. I had given up on borrowing library books until recently when I posted about the OverDrive Media Console universal app for iPhone/iPod touch/iPad. The app was free, so I downloaded it and decided I’d give the local library another try.
As I mentioned, OverDrive is a universal app, but I decided I’d download it to my iPad 2. (My aging eyes prefer to read on the bigger screen.) All the images in this review are screen shots from my iPad 2. When you start the app, you’re prompted to authorize your reader app with your Adobe ID. This must be done if you want to read EPUB files that are protected by Adobe digital rights management, as all library books are. If you don’t have an Adobe ID, you can create one.
Now you’re ready to find your local library; you need to know before you begin that a valid library card for your library is required. You can enter address/zip code information for your library, or you can search by country/state/city to find your location. Apparently many library systems in NC banded together to form the NC Digital Library so they could pool their resources. I confirmed that Greensboro was in the list, and entered my library card number. I could have the app remember my library card to make my subsequent “trips to the library” easier.
There was already a title in my bookshelf – an audiobook with a short introduction to using the OverDrive Media Console. (Just a note: the bookshelf isn’t a copy of the wooden bookshelf design used by iBooks. It’s just a simple list.) I gave the audiobook a listen. There are standard controls you’d expect: play/pause, reverse, fast-forward. You can also jump back by 15 seconds if you missed something, and you can set a sleep timer to turn off the playback after 15/30/60/90 minutes. You can multi-task while listening to audiobooks, just as you can when using iTunes to listen to music. The app will automatically remember where you left off listening to the book, and it will start playback from that point when you return to the book. You can also set bookmarks during playback. You’ll be able to see a list of the bookmarks so you can quickly return to the area of interest.
My library does offer audiobooks, but I don’t like to listen to them. I’m too easily irritated by the narrator’s voice or distracted by something going on around me, so I decided I’d go check out an ebook from my library. From the bookshelf, you tap the Get Books + button at the upper right. You are sent to Safari to search the library. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of books available to me; there were thousands of books in fiction and non-fiction categories. The home page offers featured EPUBs and audiobooks. You can search by entering a search string: author’s name, book title, or keyword. You can also browse by selecting a category from a list of non-fiction or fiction offerings. Books fitting the search or browsing criteria are shown in a list that can be further sorted by title, creator, popularity, or date added. Tap on a book, and you’ll see publication information, library holdings, a description, and sometimes a sample chapter from an ebook.
The library holdings information tells you how many copies the library owns and how many are available for immediate lending. If there are none available for lending, you’ll see how many people are on the waiting list for the book. You can enter your name on the waiting list; you’ll have to leave an email address to put a hold on the book. I suppose different libraries will treat holds differently, but the Greensboro library will email you when the book is available to you and hold the book for three days. If you don’t check it out in that time, you’ll be dropped off the list and the book will be offered to the next person. You can also add the book to a wish list to help you remember a title you’re interested in but don’t wish to check out at the moment.
If a copy is available for immediate lending, tap the “Add to my NCDL eBookBag” button. Think of the eBookBag as a shopping cart. Again, I suppose different libraries could have different limits, but my library allows up to 5 books to be added to the eBookBag. I have a limit of four titles checked out at once, and eBookBag displays information about how many titles I have checked out now and how many I’ll have still available if I check out the contents of the eBookBag.
I already had to enter my library card number when I logged in, so checking out is quick and easy. I can make last minute removals of any books I changed my mind about, then I just click to confirm. You’ll then see a list of books available to download. Since most ebook titles are small, downloading was very quick. You complete the downloads from the browser, then return to the OverDrive app to read.
The downloaded books are added to the bookshelf. Each entry shows the cover, title, and format (ebook or audiobook). Library books also have a small calendar icon with the number of days left in the lending period. Tap the title, cover, or most anywhere else on that shelf to open the book and start reading. If you tap the gray arrow in a circle at the far right of the shelf, you’ll go to a screen displaying information about the book. If the cover has a small magnifying glass icon, tap it to see an enlargement. You’ll see a description of the book, publisher, and the dates when you added and last opened the book and the date/time the book expires. Other tabs on this screen show the file format and size, the table of contents (tap an entry to jump to that location in the book), and a list of bookmarks you’ve made in the book (tap to jump to that location).
In addition to library books, you can also access free, out-of-copyright books from Project Gutenberg. Look at the bottom of the browser screen to find access to these free books. Right now, there are 15,000 free books available to me. I can search by entered string, by subject, or in a list of featured books. I don’t have to go through a checkout process to get these books. Just tap the download button and choose to add the book to iBooks, OverDrive, or other appropriate book reader apps on the iPad. These books have no expiration date.
I can also add EPUBs to the OverDrive bookshelf by emailing them to the email account I access in the iPad mail program. When the email arrives, tap and hold the attachment icon. You’ll be prompted for the program you want to add the book to; just choose OverDrive.
When you open a book to read, dark gray navigation bars are shown at the top and bottom of the page. From the top bar, you can return to the bookshelf by tapping the left arrow at the left of the screen, adjust the screen brightness or select a white-on-black night reading mode by tapping the sun icon, adjust the font size (but not the type face) or turning on a sepia-toned background by tapping the double-A icon, and finally see the table of contents by tapping the bars icon at the far right. The bottom bar shows a progress display bar with a button. Slide the button to jump to a desired page. At the left is a lock icon. You can read in either horizontal or vertical orientation, and you can use this lock button to fix the screen in your desired orientation even if you don’t have the screen locked outside this app.
Navigation and controls are like the standards used in iBooks. Tap in the middle of the screen to turn the navigation bars on/off. Tap the left side to turn back a page; tap the right side of the screen to turn forward a page. Your last location in the book is automatically remembered when you close the book, and the book opens to that page. If you intend to jump around in the book by using the table of contents, the slider bar, or any bookmarks you added, you’ll need to first bookmark your current place or it will be lost.
I normally read in iBooks, and I always use my iPad in the horizontal orientation. I love the two-page format in iBooks. I find the column layout is easier to read because my eyes don’t have such a long line to track as I read. There is no double-page layout in OverDrive. I don’t prefer that, but I can deal with it. There are no fancy page-turning animations in OverDrive. I’ll admit that’s a cool feature in iBooks when you first see it, but it’s not necessary by any means. I don’t miss the animation at all.
The first book I checked out happened to be a young adult book that was a very quick read. I finished in a couple of hours, and I could have waited to the end of the 14-day lending period and the book would be automatically “returned” to the library and deleted from my iPad. I didn’t want to waste one of my allowed books, so I manually returned it to the library. To manually return and/or delete a book, swipe a finger over the “shelf”; a red “delete” button appears at the right end of the shelf. Tap the button and choose to return and delete the book or delete without returning. (You’ll be able to re-download the book later during the lending period if you chose to delete without returning.)
I’ve only discussed the OverDrive Media Console for iOS mobile devices, but there are versions for Android, Blackberry, Mac OS X, Windows (98 SE or newer), and Windows Phone 7. Check the OverDrive FAQs to learn version requirements for these platforms. Different platforms can use various file formats. The Windows program supports MP3 and WMA audiobooks, WMA music, and WMV video. The mobile apps support MP3 audiobooks and EPUBs. The Mac console supports only MP3 audiobooks.
The OverDrive Media Console makes browsing for, borrowing, and returning a book easy – I don’t know how it could be much simpler. I can borrow audiobooks or ebooks, and the app lets me easily enjoy either type of book. It doesn’t have note-taking functions, so I see it more for leisure reading. (You shouldn’t be writing in library books anyway – not even when it’s not a permanent defacing of the book! ) It’s also an easy way to add free, out-of-copyright books to your personal library. For a free app, it offers a ton of value.