The easiest way to get library books on your iPhone, Android or Kindle

Access your local lender through the Libby app.

Tamara Palmer Contributing writer
Tamara Palmer is a DJ, author and publisher of the small-batch print magazine California Eating.
Tamara Palmer
3 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're looking for a change from the pileup of those Amazon packages of books that you keep ordering but haven't yet read, try a different strategy: Check out some e-books and audiobooks from your local library via your phone. It's much easier than it used to be.

Libby is the much cuter and friendlier younger sister app of OverDrive, which remains a rather clunky and uninviting way to get library titles onto a device such as your iPhone , Android or Kindle reader. A help area called Libby Academy is useful for navigating around the app, but a simple, animated design makes it easier and more intuitive to use than OverDrive even right off the bat.

Getting started

In the Libby app on iPhone or Android, tap the icon in the upper right corner for the main menu. There, you can add your library card number if you have one, or discover how to get one in your area. Some library systems allow for obtaining a library card online, while others don't. In San Francisco, for example, you can fill out a form online or within the app, but you'll have to pick up the library card in person at one of the city's branches within 30 days.

Choose Set Up Libby within the main menu in order to choose download behavior (i.e. whether you want to automatically download everything, nothing or titles under 20 megabytes), select your preferred reading devices or, after you've started the borrowing process, to edit the titles you have on hold.

Borrowing a book

While browsing, you'll be able to read samples of the e-books and play samples of the audiobooks, as well as borrow the title if it's available or reserve it if there's a waiting list. If the title is available to rent, you'll be able to tap Borrow, learn how long the rental period is and confirm that you still want it. Once you've successfully borrowed the book, you'll be given the option to read it via the app or with Kindle. If you choose Kindle, you'll be taken to Amazon's website, where you'll finalize borrowing the book and sending wirelessly to your device. 

Watch this: Big-screen Kindle Oasis costs less, does more

Returning a book

Tap Shelf on the lower right corner of the app's homepage. Tap Loans, then Manage Loan(s), which will allow you to renew the book if possible, return the loan to the library or send to a device.

Sounds great! What's the downside?

As is the case with OverDrive, the catalog of titles you see in Libby as well as the amount of copies available to borrow (even as a download) are determined by your library, so you might need to add yourself to the waiting list by tapping Place Hold within the specific book's page. If you do this, you'll be shown how many copies are circulating, how many people are waiting and how long your wait will be.

And sometimes those waits are long -- for example, if I wanted to check out Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians from the San Francisco Public Library as I write this, I'd have to wait for nine weeks. Also keep in mind that your library's rental period might be one to three weeks, which means you might need to be prepared to read or listen to it pretty much right away when it's your turn.

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For further reading: Six places to find free and discounted e-books.

A novel idea: NYC Library is posting classic lit to Instagram.