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Digital Media

How to get free digital magazines from your library

If your library allows it, you can read a huge selection of magazines on your phone, tablet or PC -- all at no charge.

Public libraries are so awesome. (Thanks, Ben Franklin!) They let you borrow not only physical books, but also digital content like e-books, audiobooks and -- surprise, surprise! -- digital magazines.

It's true: Many libraries have partnered with RBdigital (formerly Zinio for Libraries) to offer electronic 'zines you can check out and read on a variety of devices. I was already a big fan of doing that on my iPad, so I'm overjoyed that my local library (here in metro Detroit) offers this awesome option.

It's a surprisingly generous offer, too: For most titles you get access to not just the latest issue, but also back issues. There's usually no limit on the number of magazines you can "check out," and they don't expire after a certain time period the way library e-books do. In other words, you get to keep them for as long as your account is active.

Here's how to get started with RBdigital, starting with what you'll need in order to read.

Dust off your library card

First, visit your local library's website (via your desktop browser) to see if there's any mention of RBdigital. If so, you'll need your library card number and password to get through the registration process, which should be accessible via that site. The process typically involves creating an account with RBdigital, the service that manages magazine loans for libraries.

With that done, check your inbox for an activation email from RBdigital and click the link to verify your account.


RBdigital is the gateway to digital magazines.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Eventually you should be looking the available catalog of magazines, the size of which can vary from one library to another. (Mine, for example, offers around 150 titles -- not every magazine I like, but a good mix overall.) If you see something you know you want to read, just click the cover and then the blue Checkout button. Pro tip: Before clicking that button, check the box marked Email me when the next issue is available. It's not quite as automated as a subscription -- you still have to manually check out each issue -- but it's close.

Consider the hardware


Reading magazines on a phone isn't terrible thanks to RBdigital's text mode -- which isn't all text, thankfully.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Next, figure out where and how you want to consume your digital mags. To my thinking, the best bet is a full-size tablet, meaning one with a screen that's at least 8 inches. I've used an iPad Mini, which is pretty good (so long as it has a Retina Display), but an iPad Air is better.

Ultimately, you want something with the highest resolution and largest screen you can get -- at least if you plan to consume magazines in their native format (meaning PDFs of the actual magazine pages). Thankfully, the RBdigital app offers a text view for many, if not most, titles, and it's a better implementation than I've seen before.

Typically, reading a magazine on a smartphone (or smaller tablet) means a lot of scrolling and zooming, which is far from ideal. But with one tap, the RBdigital app will switch you over to text mode, giving you larger print (in your choice of three sizes) nicely formatted for smaller screens. And it's not just raw text, either; photos get mixed in as well.

This mode definitely works better for longer stories; on pages with lots of little blurbs, the app doesn't always delineate between them well. I also noticed that in PDF view, at least on my tablet, it took a full second or so for each new page to come into focus. The previous app, Zinio for Libraries, was much faster.

Get the apps

The RBdigital apps are available for Amazon Fire, Android and iOS. Thankfully, the Fire version doesn't require side-loading like the Zinio app did.

Once it's installed, run the app, then sign into the RBdigital account you just created. Any magazines you've already checked out should be waiting for you. Alternately, you can tap the Menu button and then Magazines to explore the collection and choose titles to check out.

All this may vary a bit depending on your library, and different magazines may function a bit differently depending on where you read them. (Reading on a laptop, for example, still takes you to a Zinio-powered viewer.) 

Bottom line: If you like magazines and want to read them for free, well, it's time to renew that library card.

Editors' note: This article was originally published on November 15, 2016, and has since been updated.