Borrow free e-books from your library with OverDrive and 3M Cloud Library

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I was recently listening to public radio show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! while waiting for my bus when author Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame came on as a guest. I became intrigued enough to downloaded her second book to my iPhone 6 Plus then and there, and powered through the first two chapters during my commute.

But I didn’t buy the book from Apple, Amazon, or Google. Instead, I borrowed it from my public library.

Yes, you can do that now. Public libraries, centuries-long suppliers of physical books on loan, have in recent years also started lending out digital books for their patrons to read on their computers and mobile devices. Borrowed e-books have a limited lifespan, like when you rent a movie from iTunes. When the loan expires, the e-book becomes inaccessible, no trudging to your local branch and of course no late fees.

Consider this a manifesto: Buying e-books is for suckers. Buy only books you love and are likely to reread. Get the rest from the library and save a bundle.

What you need

OverDrive and 3M Cloud Library are rival services that offer vast e-book catalogs for deployment by public libraries. My St. Paul public library uses both, as do other Twin Cities library systems. Access in your region may vary, but chances are good your local library uses at least one of these services. 3M Cloud Library and OverDrive take different approaches to library-book distribution, and neither did a good job until recently. Now things are looking up.

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3M Cloud Library has gone far in version 2.

This month, 3M released version 2.0 of its iPhone and iPad app with a dramatically improved interface. Gone is a dreadful skeuomorphic-wood bookcase, replaced with the minimalist interface Android users have been enjoying for months.

OverDrive takes a multi-pronged approach by making e-books available as elegant Web apps, downloadable files, or Kindle e-books. The latter is possible because OverDrive has a deal with Amazon to use its Kindle Store as a distribution hub.

I use OverDrive and 3M Cloud Library interchangeably because they never seem to have the same titles available. I treat these as a single, gigantic library with untold e-treasures available for download with a click or a tap—but each lending system has shortcomings.

Get started with 3M Cloud Library

3M takes an app-centric approach to library-book lending. In addition to iOS and Android apps, it offers PC and Mac apps. Almost everything happens within these apps, from signing up for e-book borrowing with your library card, to searching for, reserving, and checking out library books.

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3M lets you browse your local library's selections right inside the app.

The iOS app works well. It lets you look through a catalog via Featured and Browse sections, both accessed on a light-blue menu bar that slides in from the left edge of the device’s screen. As a user of the old 3M Cloud Library app, I am delighted by the app’s vastly improved “discoverability,” courtesy of well-organized, readily accessible catalog offerings.

The My Books section shows all my checked-out books, the books I have on hold, and a reading history. I’m currently on Dave Eggers’s The Circle, David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel romance epic. Each is available with a tap. I am reminded below each when its loan term expires, and I can “return” a book with a tap at any time.

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Borrow, Read, Return.

The app annoys in some ways. It’s not Retina-ready on either the iPhone or iPad, which means icons in the settings popover menu look badly blurred. Nothing about the app’s design is iOS 8-specific (3M needs to hire an Apple-knowledgeable app developer stat). Typography from title to title can be hit or miss. And the left and right margins in some books are too wide on my iPhone 6 Plus, although they look fine on the iPad.

The Cloud Library app for Mac is in even greater need of interface updates, though it is fairly functional in its current form. My checked-out books are shown against a wooden backdrop (ugh), a Shelves area shows long rows of other books in popular categories, and a Categories section allows users drill down into 52 topic areas, from Antiques & Collectibles to True Crime. Some, like Comics & Graphic Novels, have slim pickings.

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The Cloud Library Mac app works well too.

You can also read Cloud Library books in the Windows app and Android app, and even in the Adobe Digital Editions for Mac, because 3M uses Adobe encryption. You can transfer books onto physical e-book readers from the likes of Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble via the Cloud Library desktop app, as well.

3M does offer a method for installing the app on Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets—I tried it and it works. But there’s no way to get Cloud Library books on Kindle e-book readers like the Voyage or the Paperwhite. This is Cloud Library’s largest shortcoming and perhaps OverDrive’s biggest edge.

Going into OverDrive

OverDrive is a wider-used and better-known system for lending public library e-books, which is why for many it is synonymous with digital book borrowing. But unlike Cloud Library’s centralized system, OverDrive takes a hydra-like approach with multiple (and sometimes conflicting) ways to borrow and read books. It has a bit of a learning curve.

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Your search for OverDrive-compatible books usually starts on the Web.

OverDrive users in search of something to read will typically start on the Web, perhaps on their local library’s site. The St. Paul Public Library, for example, has an entire OverDrive section on its site.

Or you can use OverDrive’s site, which is as a kind of library metasearch engine that looks up book titles, and which libraries have them to lend. Once you’re ready to check out an OverDrive book from my public library, you have a variety of options, not all of which are available for every title.

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Even when reading in your browser, you get decent controls—there's almost no need to get the native apps.

First, you could read the book in the browser. This is a surprisingly good way to go because it turns the e-book into a sort of lovely Web app with sophisticated, thoughtfully arranged controls, including a choice of typefaces, a font-scaling slider, an offline mode and options for creating bookmarks, highlights and notes.

Second, you can hand off the book to Amazon for reading as a Kindle e-book. This makes it available on any Kindle device, within any Kindle app and within a browser via the Kindle Cloud Reader. It will remain in your Kindle library forever, but once the lending period is over, you can’t open it unless you buy or re-borrow it.

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OverDrive offers many reading options, from in-browser to Kindle, and even EPUB, but not every method is available for every book.

Either the browser or Kindle option works for me, but I don’t use them interchangeably because they can’t sync with each other. But if you stick to either browser or Kindle reading, syncing from device to device does work reliably.

There’s a third option: Downloading a book to your Mac as either a PDF or an ePub file. These are copy-protected files that use Adobe encryption, so you need to install Adobe’s aforementioned Digital Editions app for Mac. If you are also using Cloud Library, you can conveniently consolidate borrowed books from both systems in the Adobe app. But beware: Digital Editions can be unstable and uncooperative about loading e-books.

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Adobe's Digital Editions lets you read both 3M Cloud Library and OverDrive books on your Mac in a single app.

OverDrive has a selection of native apps for desktop and mobile, but these are optional, do not give you any additional reading options, and do not provide any significant advantages over browser-based access that I can see. In fact, the apps merely pull up my public library’s site, browser-style, when it’s time to check out a book. I couldn’t even install OverDrive’s Mac app for the life of me, and I have been trying on multiple Macs for weeks.

The upshot

Because of e-book borrowing, my e-book purchasing has taken a dive—my last Kindle purchases were in December of 2013. In the months since, I’ve checked out dozens of books from the St. Paul Public Library, and I’m having the time of my life.

3M Cloud Library and OverDrive are still far from perfect, as I’ve noted, but their flaws are now modest enough to forgive given how they put a world of books at my fingertips…and the price is certainly right.

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