Over the last few years, I’ve introduced loads of people to the wonderful digital resources their local (and not local!) libraries have to offer.

Now, since so many people are unexpectedly at home thanks to COVID-19, and since most local libraries are closing their in-person spaces to “flatten the curve,” I figured it’s a great time to spread the word further.

Digital library? What does that mean?

A lot of people sort of vaguely know their library has “things” available online. Most people don’t appreciate the full breadth, though. Depending on your library, you may be able to access some or all of the following items and services, all without leaving your home:

  • Ebooks (for Kindles and other e-readers, as well as use on your phone/tablet/laptop/etc.)
  • Audiobooks (play them right from your phone!)
  • Streaming movies and TV shows
  • Streaming music and music you can download (and even full-length concert recordings)
  • Digital magazines and comic books
  • LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com; online tech courses, usually $30/month but free through some libraries)
  • Kids’ edutainment software
  • Other subscription services and classes like Creativebug (craft classes), Mango (language learning), The Great Courses, and bunches of newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among others)
  • Geneology, academic, and medical databases galore

If you aren’t amazed and inspired by that list, I’m not sure we can be friends.

What if I don’t have a library card?

Normally I’d tell you to hustle down to your local library and get yourself a card, stat. Of course, with libraries closed right now, that’s not an option. So…

Start by reading through your library’s website. Some libraries have the option to get a digital card through an online application and start using it right away. If the library mentions a service called “Overdrive,” you’ve got good odds, as they can often verify your eligibility from your phone number (it’s based on billing zip code, not the area code).

If that’s not the case for your library, try calling the library or messaging them through their social media accounts and ask what your options are. Many libraries are still somewhat staffed and in general, librarians love to get people hooked up with library cards.

If that still doesn’t get you anywhere, all is not lost in the meantime. You may be able to get a library card elsewhere or get similar services online for a reasonable price to get you through the quarantine. Take a look at the bottom of this post for more ideas.

How do I actually get the materials?

As mentioned at the top, libraries tend to give you access to a lot of different content. Most of this content is managed by a third-party that specializes in distributing it for many libaries, and that often means you’ll need to get a different app for different kinds of content.

Generally, the best place to start is on the library’s website, on a page that’s usually called “Digital Resources” or “e-library” or “Online Databases” or something similarly “digital.” This page will typically list many or all of the services they provide.

For web-based services like Hoopla or LinkedIn Learning or Creativebug, you’ll often sign up for an account through a special link on the library’s site, and you’ll enter your library card number as part of the process. Once you’ve made it that far, it’s usually pretty straightforward to stream content.

For app-based services like Overdrive (mostly ebooks and audiobooks) and cloudLibrary, it’s still easier to sign up on a computer and then use the account you created to log into the app.

That brings us to an interesting point: if you have a Kindle e-ink device (the Paperwhite, Touch, Oasis, etc.), the service you really want your library to have is Overdrive. Hoopla and cloudLibrary offer ebooks, but you have to read them through their app. There’s no (easy) way to transfer them onto your Kindle. Of course, you can’t control which one your library uses, but if you have the ability to get a card from another system (see the next section of this post), it’s worth being aware of.

My next post will be a collection of my pro-tips for using Overdrive (because I am an avid Kindle Paperwhite reader). I’ll link it here as soon as it’s up.

I’m hooked (or my library is underfunded and sad). Where can I get even more digital goodness?

In a lot of states, libraries are funded in part by the state and as a result, give library cards to any state resident, regardless of where in the state they live.

I live in California where that is the case, and so far I’ve managed to get cards from seven different SoCal libraries (it’s kind of a game at this point). Just like your local library, you may be able to apply for a digital card online. This is a little trickier than if you’re local (the verify-by-phone-number thing doesn’t work), but if you can find one or two libraries in your state that will let you in, that’s a heck of a lot better than nothing.

If you’re in California, I can recommend the San Bernadino County Library. They let you sign up online, give you (almost) immediate access, and don’t require you to come in at any time.

There are a few libraries that give non-resident digital cards regardless of your location. Well, I assume there are a few—I’m still hunting. So far, I’ve found the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (“Non-Prince George’s County residents may also apply for a virtual card that will expire after six months and offer limited benefits.”)

If you don’t mind shelling out a little cash, some libraries allow non-residents to essentially match what the residents contribute to the library in taxes and get the same benefits. Most libraries will only let you pay for a non-resident card in person, but there are a few who will let you do the whole thing online.

My own beloved San Diego County Library lets you apply for a card online, and it seems like you can use it right away. They have the most affordable non-resident card I know of: it’s a one-time $5 fee! However, I’m not sure how you pay it if you apply online and aren’t local. Maybe mail them a check? 🙂

The Brooklyn Public Library is generally regarded as the best value for the non-local non-resident. As of this post, their annual fee is a very reasonable $50/year (less than $5/month!) which is amazing when you consider that they have over 100,000 ebooks, 35,000+ audiobooks, and a whole host of other good stuff (remember that $30/month LinkedIn Learning subscription? That’s included!).

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