How to borrow an ebook from a library

Here’a a post about my experience of interacting with the ebook loan system in my local library. I do some reflection on the value or otherwise of such systems in a column published in the Birmingham Post newspaper. There I summarised the experience as:

“After a fiddle and a couple of emails to the helpdesk, it actually worked”

Well that’s kind of true but the fiddling was prolonged at points and although it works it strikes me that lending books out in this way is hardly going to change the world of libraries forever. For the most part I’ll focus on practicalities since the copyright stuff is a bit bonkers to be honest.

So here’s what you need to do to get an ebook (audio books use a separate system) from Birmingham Library Services in the UK. I’ll mention what happens on a computer and on a mobile device such as an iPhone or iPad. I didn’t have a compatible e-reader to test it on. I’ve put all the screen grabs at the bottom of this post, there are links to them against specific step:

STAGE ONE – prep

  1. Join the library.
  2. Decide if you want to read books on a computer screen or a mobile device.
  3. Check if your mobile device is compatible on the overdrive website. Put away your Kindle – those are compatible for US libraries only.
  4. So you want to read ebooks on a computer? Download Adobe Digital Editions and sign up for an account with
  5. Still on your computer? Okay, open up Adobe Digital Editions (pic) and authorise it with your Adobe account details.
  6. Want to read a book on your iPhone or iPad? Download the ‘Overdrive’ app from the app store (pic)
  7. Authorise the app with your Adobe account details.

STAGE TWO – getting a book

  1. On your computer or on your mobile device (ignore that app for now) point your browser to
  2. Click on ‘My Account’ and from there enter your library card number (pic). Unusually, your library PIN number is not required.
  3. It didn’t work did it. I forgot to tell you, and they forgot to tell you, that you need to omit the last two digits (I’ve raised the issue so hopefully this will change. Now go repeat the above step.
  4. Take a look through the available ebooks (pic).
  5. Choose a book as long as it is available. Mostly there is only one available copy of each book. If another user has taken it our, it’s out. You can add it to a wish list and you’ll get it when it comes back in. That’s right, it’s just like a normal book (pic)
  6. ‘Add to basket’ and ‘Proceed to checkout’.
  7. At the ‘Confirm Check Out’ page you will notice that you can only have 3 ebooks out at one time and that the lending period is 21 days (you can return it early but it will auto-return/auto-delete from your device at that end of 21 days).
STAGE THREE – reading the book
  1. At this stage the process is slightly different whether you are on a computer or mobile device
  2. On a computer, clicking ‘download’ results in a small .acsm file being downloaded that will open in Adobe Digital Editions, prompting the download of the whole book. You can now enjoy your book.
  3. On the iPhone/iPad, clicking ‘download’ (pic) opens the Overdrive app and the book is downloaded to it.
  4. Navigation on the mobile device is easy to manage (pic and pic).
STAGE FOUR – returning the book
  1. See what I said in Stage two point number 7 above. On the mobile returning is pretty easy (pic).
  1. The reason I’ve navigated you via the web browser even if you are using a mobile is that all the Overdrive app does is send you there anyway to browse and get the books.
  2. The search function is flaky in the app. A search via postcode doesn’t work and browsing through the regions results in the alarming discovery that the West Midlands isn’t listed at all and that Birmingham is listed in the South West section. A search for ‘Birmingham’ lists all the US Birminghams as well.
  3. Once you have gone through Stage Two above using your mobile the app will then have a shortcut for Birmingham Library on it (pic). So you can then begin your journey using the app or of course just have a shortcut in your browser

And that’s it. Are you still with me? Did you enjoy your ebook? It’s complex, too complex perhaps and having to ‘authorise’ devices might put people off even before they’ve left Stage one. There are niggles to sort (the one about the library digits and the location of Birmingham on the app) but eventually, the book does get to your device and you can read it.

I’ll let others debate the restrictive practices of publishers but for the meantime it seems we’re stuck with the one copy, one lender restrictions (and get this, some publishers make the library re-buy the book after 26 loans).


Screen shot Digital Editions

Library ebook screen grabs

library sign in screen

Screen shot main page

Screen shot choose book

Screen shot download

Library ebook screen grabs

Library ebook screen grabs

Library ebook screen grabs

Library ebook screen grabs