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 Zinio 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 option, too: For most titles you get access to not just the latest issue, but also back issues. There's 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 Zinio for Libraries, starting with what you'll need in order to read.

Is your library cool?

For starters, visit your local library's Web site (via your desktop browser) to see if there's any mention of Zinio. 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 RB Digital, the service that manages magazine loans for libraries.

zinio-for-libraries-web-page.jpg

And this is just the Computers & Technology section!

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

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

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 200 titles -- well short of the thousands Zinio offers, but a very good mix of the stuff I like to read.) 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

Next, figure out where and how you want to consume your digital mags. To my thinking, the best bet by far 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.

Zinio for Libraries gives you access to lots of great magazines. A few of my preferred titles are shown here on an iPad Mini.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Ultimately, you want something with the highest resolution and largest screen you can get. This sort of precludes smartphones, which I find awkward and uncomfortable for magazine reading. There's too much zooming and scrolling required. Same goes for reading on a laptop.

Get the apps

That said, the Zinio for Libraries apps are available for Android and iOS, and you can also get one for Amazon Fire tablets, provided you're willing to do a little side-loading. (Make sure to enable "apps from unknown sources" in the Security settings, then open the browser and download the Zinio for Libraries Kindle Fire APK.)

You can use the regular Zinio apps, but the "for Libraries" versions connect you directly to your library account, which saves you a step in checking out new titles.

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

This process may vary a bit depending on your library, and different magazines may function a bit differently depending on where you read them. On my iPad, for example, the Zinio edition of PC Magazine didn't support zooming or a text-only view, but both options were available on a Kindle Fire HD. But zoom and text-view were available in Family Handyman on the iPad. Go figure.

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

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