borrowing ebooks from the library

A person holding a coffee cup with a kindle in her lap. The text is: Borrowing Ebooks from the library.

**This is an updated and massively revised post from 2012**

What would you say if I told you that I was able to save $160 in 2019 by using my public library? That’s right. 

That money I saved – or rather didn’t spend – consisted of about twelve books. I have bought a couple of books that weren’t available at the public library. (Evidently, there isn’t great demand for random books on capitalism.) When one reads as much and as quickly as I do the cost quickly starts adding up.

My “fun reading” ramps up most summers, when my classes wind down and I have a little more time.  One summer, I managed to read the entire Duneseries in about six weeks.  At one point, I actually told Justin, “I don’t think we can afford my reading habit.”  Thinking back on that, I should probably have entered a program for my addiction to reading.  The rate that I can churn through fiction amazes me because I’m able to remember most of the plot lines and characters, unless it’sGame of Thrones. Then I need to be wide awake and ready to take notes! 

So, what is one to do when new books are expensive?  The easy answer is to go to the public library.  However, I love reading on my Kindle because I can read in bed without needing a light on and all of my books are portable.  Then there’s the ability to take notes and annotate the book without being hunted down by a librarian later.

My local library lends e-books and audiobooks through OverDrive.  A lot of the e-books come in Kindle-format, and some are only available as a download. I’m not into audiobooks, so I can’t speak to those formats. I do wish that I had realized borrowing e-books was a thing before purchasing the entire Dune series, but lesson learned.  I was able to catch up on the Dragonriders of Pernseries for free and, as I said before, almost all of 2019’s reading has been free.

While renting e-books from the library seems great, there are few issues to be aware of:

  1. Just as a library only buys a set number of copies of a book, they only buy a set number of copies of e-book licenses.
  2. There are some privacy concerns associated with borrowing digital media.
  3. The inherent privilegeof being able to access a well-stocked library.

I’ll address each of these below.

Frequent waitlists

Even though e-books are digital, libraries do not have an unlimited supply to lend. This is due to licensing issues. Most libraries only buy a few licenses, just like how they only buy a few physical copies of books. As a result, there is often waitlists for new and/or very popular books. For example, Michelle Obama’s Becominghas a six-month long waitlist and Your Money or Your Lifetypically has about four months. However, beggars cannot be choosers – or so the saying goes.   Plus, I have enough to keep me busy until then. 

While many fiction books are available for checkout as e-books, finding any of my academic books in this format has been next to impossible, even though many of my non-fiction books are available as kindle books from Amazon. My guess is that the demand does not exist for my local public library.  Somehow, I’m not surprised.

Digital privacy concerns

Libraries promote the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. In support of this effort, privacy of one’s reading choices is of the utmost importance because people, in general, may be less likely to read controversial materials if they think that they are being watched or surveilled. For the most part, libraries will not provide access to your borrowing history without your consent or a court order. However, it gets a little tricky with borrowing e-books.

As a mentioned, OverDrive lends e-books in kindle format. In order to get your copy of a kindle book, you need to “check out” the book via Amazon’s website. Thus, generating a “purchase” for Amazon to know about, track, and (possibly) market to you in the future. Definitely, not the epitome of privacy. Furthermore, since Amazon acquired Goodreads, your reading choices may (depending on your kindle settings) be shared there as well for your social network to see what you’re up to.

If you are at all concerned about the privacy of your reading experience, the best way to protect yourself is by borrowing hard-copy books from the library. 

If you want to learn more about the importance of privacy, I recommend starting with the American Library Association’s page on privacy. Then, go take a look at the banned books section for a truly eye-opening view of one kind of knowledge suppression.

Supporting public libraries

If you can’t tell already, I’m a super fan of the library. In addition to books, our library allows us to check out “culture passes” that are essentially free tickets to many area museums, and we have a “library of things” that allows for the checkout of various tools and gizmos that one might have a one-off need for. Both of these extra services are super neat!

In addition to the cool services that libraries provide to me (and people like me), it’s important to remember that libraries serve a vital function in the local community. They provide internet access to those who might otherwise not have access. They provide a warm place to be without spending money – think about how few of those places actually exist – for those who might need a break from the cold. They provide access to educational programs, like computer program classes, to those who might not have the skills they need for employment. They provide a gathering place for like-minded people to socialize. They provide summer reading programs for children and teens. The point is that libraries are for more than books.

Not many people are aware of all of the services that libraries provide to support their communities. As a grad student, I helped to administer a survey of a local community about knowledge and support of the library’s functions. The results of that survey showed that most people were woefully uneducated about why libraries matter. I read comment after comment about how the library used too much tax money and that suffered from mission creep. Two issues stood out me: (1) Libraries are for the benefit of everyone, regardless of socio-economic status; and (2) Libraries are in the business of providing access to knowledge. As the world and technology advances, how knowledge is generated and shared will change.

By using the library to borrow e-books, you are supporting the mission of sharing knowledge and showing that access for all matters. In other words, you’re making both the frugal choice AND supporting libraries. For me, considering how my actions may benefit others is a way for me to weigh the pros and cons of an action. I consider e-books a win-win.

Do you read e-books? How do you use your local library?


8 thoughts on “borrowing ebooks from the library

  1. I do the library on talking books. They go into my mp3 player but you have to make sure you have a bookmark on it. I love it. and when you put them into the mp3 they dont expire I found out.


  2. I have an app on my smartphone that let's me check out audiobooks and returns them for me when they expire. That way I don't have to keep track of the due dates and stay in compliance with the terms of the library lending rules. I'm very conscious of the fact that I don't own the book and am careful to delete them at the end of the lending period.


  3. I tried doing this with my local library but I owe a fine on the last books I borrowed and didn't return on time. 😦 So, going to the library to pay up is on my errand list today. I can hardly wait to try borrowing on my Kindle.


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