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Learning Your Online Library System


Right now, we're all looking for an escape from both our rooms and realties. Books are one of the best ways to do that. While some of us are struggling to read, others are finally finding comfort in reading again. I'm reading more than I have in the last couple years, and I've really fallen back in love with YA after stepping back from it for a couple months. Because of this, I've had to get more creative with sourcing my books. Like I said at the start of the year, I've been trying to avoid buying books in both an effort to save and to not have a ton of books I don't know what to do with when I go to college. I do still buy the occasional book I've fallen in love with, but I've managed to mostly stick with it.
The problem, now, though, is that even if you wanted to buy books, it's gotten far harder. Browsing indie bookstores, Barnes and Noble, or even your library is out. Shipping times are getting longer and more unpredictable. While supporting indie bookstores is wonderful, you might want a solution to read some books while you wait for your delivery. This brings me to your library's digital system. While every town and city system has different offerings, budgets, and online presence, it's worth investigating what your home offers. Even if you don't have a library card, some libraries are distributing them virtually.
The digital library world can be super confusing. They're also not often talked about or thought about since library's are often viewed as the buildings the books exist in. Most people I talk to aren't even aware that their libraries offer e-books. With many libraries trying to get into the digital world, though, you might be surprised at how many books they have to offer and how receptive they'll be to your requests.
Today, I want to demystify the varying databases and locations that digital library books come from, how to use them, and my thoughts on each. I'll also share tips for requesting books and learning more. I can only share my experiences on the places my library uses, but I think it covers most of the most popular ones. Each have different rules, functions, and pieces of the collection.

First: Finding the Books You're After
The downside of having to use your library online is that it's much harder to browse like you would at a regular library. Most don't allow you to skim through everything in a section and choose what to read that way. I find the way to be least frustrated and mosts successful is to do a little research ahead of time to build your TBR. Often times, when I want to read about a category I'm not super knowledgable on, I'll do a quick Google search. I did one this morning for "Best books on sustainable fashion". There are tons of articles that easily lay out tons of books that fit the bill with quick descriptions that make them easy to choose which ones to put on your list. 
For YA, I suggest going to your favorite bloggers and browsing back through their lists and reviews. I've found it to be the fastest and most successful way to find books on specific topics and that suit my tastes. They're usually much more tailored to different sub-genres than wider posts. My Themed List section has a lot of quick blurbs for specific kinds of books. I also make posts about the books coming up in the next month (here) as well to look ahead. Goodreads is another great resource for their specific lists. 
Once you know what you're after, most libraries have a search bar where you can type in titles and see if your library already carries it. Usually, they show both the digital collection and physical. You might find a couple different entries for the e-book, audiobook, and regular book. From there, the entry will tell you how many are available or let you get on the hold list for when the person's check out expires in 2 weeks. If you know which services they use, you can also search on those specific apps and websites, but it's usually a slower process. 
If you come up empty handed, you're still not out of options. It'll just take a little more work. I often start with a long list of potential reads and hope that I come up with at least a few by sheer luck. You'll be surprised by the random ones that are available. 

All the Different Places You Might Find Your E-Book
When I learned more about how libraries worked, I was surprised to learn that there were tons of different places you might have to go to get books from the same library. Each one works a little differently and offers slightly different services. As you start using your library more, you'll come to know them all (and have a folder full of all their apps on your phone!). Easily explore your library's options by checking to see if your library as a digital content tab.

Overdrive/Libby
This is one of the bigger providers for libraries. They offer e-books and audiobooks to library patrons and offer 2 apps. They're also my preferred supplier for e-books because they give you the choice to download an ePub to read in their app or to share it to your Kindle. They're the only e-book supplier that allows you to read on your regular Kindle by choosing that option and having Amazon send it to your Kindle. Choosing to go through the Kindle app for your other devices also allows you to read on multiple devices. 
Overdrive works like the regular library would. They have a selection of books they carry, and your library has to purchase access to the title. They can choose how many copies they want to order, and that's all that will be available. Once a book is checked out, you can place a hold to read it when the person before you is finished or their check out time expires. Each library has a different length for these checkouts (at mine it's two weeks), and the book will disappear once the expiration date comes. In this app, you can return the books early, and I highly suggest that because it allows the next person access sooner. While it's easy in the app, to do so on your Kindle, you have to go to your Amazon account, click Manage Content and Devices, and choose the icon with three dots that will give you an option to return the book early. 
As far as the apps go, you can download the earlier OverDrive app or the newer Libby app that access the same catalogue. I originally only knew about the OverDrive app and found it super clunky and frustrating as I tried to navigate it to listen to an audiobook. While doing a bit of research for this, I found the Libby app and quickly got logged in. Everything from my Overdrive account was there, and the design was clean and easy to navigate. I love how they lay out your loans and holds. They even give you an estimated wait time on holds and information about your place in line. I also noticed that they're currently offering some classics and popular YA books for unlimited checkout which might be useful. I definitely recommend picking the Libby app over Overdrive. 

Hoopla
Hoopla is the other most well known platform. They work a little differently than Overdrive. They offer tons of different services from e-books, audiobooks, TV shows, movies, and music. You can access everything in their catalogue whenever you want without waiting in line. This might sound too good to be true. What's the catch?
The thing is that you can only check out so many items from Hoopla per month. This varies based on your library as will the length of your checkout. My limit is 25, but I've also seen people throw out numbers like 21, and I get to keep check outs for 4 weeks instead of just two. 
They have an app that is available across all platforms and can even be used with Smart TVs. You can also stream off your laptop like how you use Netflix. I have the app on my phone, and it does leave something to be desired. It gets the job done, but the design is clunky and a bit annoying to navigate. I've also seen people complain about audio quality sometimes from it. It gets the job done, though, for the books that I can only get through them. I've only ever used them for audiobooks, so I can't attest to how it works for other items. Hoopla also allows you to easily return your finished books on the landing page, or you they automatically expire. 

CloudLibray 
This platform seems newer and lesser known, but it's one of my favorites. I only recently started using it because I have a hard time reading off a blue light screen, but the more I use it, the more I like it. I haven't found as much information about it, but it seems to work like a blend of Hoopla and Overdrive. Like Overdrive, there's a wait time for books that have been checked out. Only one person can use a title at a time. Like Hoopla, it seems like libraries have access to their whole catalogue without having to purchase individual titles, which gives you far more options. 
The app offers my favorite browsing experience of all 3 choices. They allow you to browse curated shelves like you're at the library. They're well selected, interesting to scroll through, and engaging. I particularly loved the New in YA shelf. They carried almost every YA book I've had my eye on over the past couple months. Each book page offered ample information on the book and clearly spelled out how many days you have to wait to read the book when deciding whether to place a hold. Their shelf space for your checkouts is also super straightforward simply showing the covers and the number of days you have left with the hold. 
I've started to adapt more to reading on my iPad. I'm still not the biggest fan of how bright it is, and I definitely had to recalibrate my brain to read long form on a screen. I like how it tells you what page you're on and how many total pages there are on each page. It makes it easy to tell how much progress you're making. CloudLibrary seems to be your best bet for the widest range of brand new YA and the easiest way to naturally browse for new titles across genre.

RB Digital
RB Digital only offers audiobooks to listeners along with magazines. It's probably my least favorite of all the audiobook sources. The app is super glitchy. As I'm trying to open it now to go through it one more time, it just perpetually says loading, even after deleting and re-opening. I've listened to maybe one audiobook through it and didn't have an issue. I also like that it carries tons of popular magazines and a long backlog of issues that I'd like to look into more. It seems like the app might be struggling under the incased use. I never got it to actually load which is a problem I didn't have on other platforms. 

Your Own Library's App
I figured while I was on the subject of downloading apps, I would note that more and more libraries are creating their own apps that work as hubs for their online presence. My library got one a few months ago, and it has been incredibly helpful. You can easily search through the catalogue when you hear about a book you're interested in. Mine also has some new tabs to direct you to which app you need based on the type of media you're looking for. And, back when we could actually go places, it had handy features like a barcode scanner that would immediately search their catalogue for the book you scanned and a tab that let you virtually access your library card for checkouts. If you do register with all these apps, though, I promise you'll have your library card number memorized by the end of all the log ins.

Placing Purchase Suggestions
Now that we're more familiar with navigating all the digital destinations, you might want to suggest a title they don't currently have. This should be a straightforward process most places. My library sent out an email address you could directly contact, but it also has a form for submitting purchase suggestions. I find this to be the easiest way to place my requests. There are a couple things to keep in mind as you complete them. 
If you're looking to request a book that isn't out yet, consider how long it'll be till the book publishes. Unlike with preordering through a retailer, earlier isn't better. This has to do with how library budgets are laid out and when they can make certain purchases. If you'd like to go ahead and make sure the book can be available on release day or you want an early start on your requests, it's best to wait till at most a month or maybe two out to file that. Otherwise, it might get lost before it's time to place the order.
The other key element is making sure that if your library offers multiple services for digital content, you request it in a format you can access. When I submit e-book requests, I make sure to write in the request box to see if they can get it in a Kindle accessible format. While they might not be able to grant every request, I've found that if you let the librarians know, they'll do their best to help. 
While they might not be able to grant every request, libraries are ramping up their digital offerings. I've also found that they're replying and purchasing faster in response to these requests. I've gotten access to books I've placed requests for in as little as three days recently which I appreciate tons. 

In Conclusion
There are so many reasons to use your library even though we can't visit them in person! Just like it's important to support bookstores so that they'll be there when we return to normal, it's important to support libraries so they can maintain their budget and prove their relevance to government boards. By checking out online books and making requests, you'll show engagement and keep circulation numbers up while being able to read as much as you want for free. Learning to use these systems can be intimidating, but it's well worth it. It's also a good way to use up some time when it feels like there are too many hours in a day. 
I'm trying to use this time to read books I wouldn't have picked up otherwise. It makes me feel freer with my choices knowing that I won't have to drive back to the library to return it if I dislike it. It's also a great time to try out new formats. I'm trying to experiment with all the platforms and ways to take in books. Even beyond e-books, there are so many possibilities. After feeling like I'd run out of podcasts (even though that's impossible), I remembered to check and see if any of the books I wanted to read were offered as audiobooks. I was pleased to have found a couple. They've been great to listen to as I've done a lot more admin blog work recently or while I have lunch or scroll through Instagram. 
It's amazing what most libraries offer if you take a little time to explore their web pages. See if your library has an Instagram account. It's a great way to learn about the newest additions. On my library's web page, they've added a section called "Quarantine Access" to highlight all their new virtual programming from online story time to resources for homeschooling. They also offer access to online newspapers for free and online learning resources for different skills and languages. 

Hopefully this has been a helpful guide that's made you think about what library services might be helpful to you. It's taken me a while to learn about all the different parts of the system, and it can be intimidating. I promise you that it is worth it. I absolutely love my local library, and they're the reason that I can read and keep up the blog the way I do. Even though I'd really love to curl up in one of their window seats in the YA section right now, using these resources is the next best thing.

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