Update September 29, 2011: Amazon has recently enabled library lending its Kindle products, both old and new. The author still has not bought a Kindle or other e-reader, however, mainly because he finds reading on his smartphone, via the Kindle and Overdrive apps, perfectly acceptable for now.
I normally write about TVs and related gear for CNET, but I figured some Crave readers might want to hear about my recent experiences as I considered getting an e-reader for myself. In particular, my good experience "borrowing" e-books from my local library--something I can do on a Barnes & Noble Nook or Sony Reader, for example, but not on an Amazon Kindle.
First, some background. I read a lot, and in the last few years I've been taking advantage of the local library to get my fiction fix (for free!), rather than buying books. The idea of an e-reader never really appealed to me, mainly because I'd always thought of them as money pits designed to feed impulse purchases, and I didn't trust myself not to go on a buying spree if I got one. I was also skeptical that the reading experience could be preserved.
When my co-worker and fellow bibliophile John Falcone offered to lend me his Kindle 3 for an overseas business trip, however, my perception of e-readers changed. The little device not only preserved the experience of reading an actual book--in my opinion it improved upon it. I found it more convenient to turn pages, easier to stand upright (with this awesome cover) and read hands-free, just as easy on the eyes, and lighter and more comfortable to hold over time than many books. Reading books on the Kindle was, to my surprise, better than reading a paper book in just about every way.
I had to have one.
Around the same time I received a mailer from my library in East Northport, New York, touting a new service: downloadable e-books. The blurb mentioned support for "compatible devices, like the Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony Reader." I noticed that it didn't mention the Kindle, which didn't surprise me because I knew enough about e-readers to know that Amazon has declined to support the e-book format of choice for libraries, known as EPUB.
Once I found out that my library offered "free" books for e-readers, I had to try it. I returned that Kindle to Falcone and borrowed a Sony Reader PRS-650BC from CNET's resident e-reader expert (and author) David Carnoy. When I told him why I wanted it, he mentioned that the Nook could also handle EPUB and I was welcome to try that one, too. I chose the Sony not because of the slick, red case, but because I liked its screen-first form factor better.
The Sony lacks any kind of wireless connectivity, but for borrowing EPUB books that wasn't an issue. Doing so was a bit more difficult than the "one click" method for buying books on a Kindle, but not that bad at all once I got everything installed.
My library Web site, administered by a service called Live-brary, explained the process clearly enough. It uses Adobe Digital Editions software for e-books, so my first step was to download that software, install it on my PC and register for a user account to activate the software. Activation authorizes Adobe's DRM (digital rights management) system, allowing me to read downloaded/"borrowed" library e-books on both the PC and the Sony Reader itself. I also had to install Sony's own Reader Library software to get my PC to recognize the reader.
After that I had to find books I actually wanted to read. That step proved more difficult than I anticipated; evidently, in my preferred genre of Sci-fi/Fantasy, at least, EPUB books were pretty dang popular among Long Island's e-reader cognoscenti. Most of the titles I was interested in showed up with zero "available copies," so I put myself on a couple of waiting lists for them. In the meantime I found two available books I did want to read: Jim Butcher's second-newest Dresden installment, "Changes," and the first "Foundation" novel (I'd been meaning to reread that series for years) by Isaac Asimov.
I added both to my cart on the Web site and hit the "download" buttons. They appeared in the Sony software, at which point I simply dragged them over onto the Reader itself. I disconnected the USB port and looked in the Sony Reader's menu to find both books. Each even had a convenient display under the titles that told me in how many days they were "due" back (i.e., when the DRM kicked in to erase my access to the files).
When I check out physical books I get a month or so before I have to return or renew them, but the case of the two e-books I tried, I had two weeks to finish. That seems to me to be the main issue with the arrangement at my library--finishing any book in two weeks can be tight for me. There's no way to "renew" an e-book I've checked out, although I could check it out again provided another virtual "copy" is available. With EPUB at my library you can "return" a book early, however.
Of course the selection of physical books at my library pales in comparison to Amazon's, and the same goes for e-books. I did find a few newer titles on Live-brary (for example "Damage" by John Lescroart, released on January 4, 2011), but the majority in the new releases section were from 2009 or earlier. I'm a fan of series as well, but not audiobooks, and for some reason Live-brary seemed to stock earlier books in a few series I checked in audiobook format only, not e-books.
Of course many of these issues will vary by library, and other library systems may have more copies available in e-book format or allow longer lending periods. I don't know about that. I just know that getting "free" e-books that I wanted to read anyway has convinced me that EPUB support is something I want in whatever reader I end up buying.
I asked Carnoy whether he thought compatibility with libraries was something that Amazon may add in the near future, and he said he highly doubted it. He also mentioned that Overdrive powers a lot of libraries' e-book collections, and that its new Media Console software had added iPhone and Android apps.
Although Kindle has massive market share in the nascent e-book category, and it's a slick piece of hardware, there's no way I'd buy one myself. Borrowing virtual books from the local library, without having to go there, is just too cool of a feature in my book.