Borrowing Kindle e-books: hands-on thanks to the Boston Public Library

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Yesterday Amazon announced that Kindle books are now available from 11,000 public libraries across the US. Getting ebooks from a library isn't anything new but my understanding is that the process up to now has been fairly old-school: you'd log into the library's website, download a file (usually in ePub format), then sync it over to your e-reader (which would have to support Adobe's digital rights management system).

Amazon has Kindle-fied e-lending, letting you download the books directly to your Kindle with no extra software required. What's more, you can take notes, highlight passages and so on, and Amazon will hold onto that information. If you return the book and then take it out again at some later point (or purchase a copy), all your info will still be there.

It seems like a great service, but Amazon is soft-selling it in one respect: they're not saying which 11,000 libraries they've partnered with. You have to either go to your library's web site to find out if they offer the service, or check out the Overdrive site. Overdrive powers e-book lending for a number of formats, though, so it might take some digging around to find one that does Kindle books. If you're looking for a specific book you can use their Advanced Search and specify Kindle format and see what pops up.

As a Massachusetts resident, I went right to the Boston Public Library's [BPL] site, and sure enough they were offering Kindle books, so I decided to go hands-on. Some of this will probably be specific to the BPL but you should at least get an idea of how things will work with your local library.

I didn't have a BPL library card (since I live 45 minutes outside of the city), but the BPL offers an e-card that you can sign-up for remotely. I did that and a few minutes later had an e-card number.

Next I hit their Kindle section. The size and scope of this section will no-doubt vary widely from library to library, but BPL offers only 5,364 titles in Kindle format (presumably this number will grow if the service becomes popular). For most titles the library owns 1-3 "copies" (licenses) to loan out; expect long wait times for popular titles. In addition to borrowing ebooks, BPL lets you add titles to a Wish List, or to place a title on hold. If you do the latter you'll get an email when the title becomes available for borrowing and will then have 5 days to check out the book before the next person in line gets their chance.

I found a book that was available and added it to my cart, then followed through a quick "Check out" system. Once that was done my book was listed with a big "Get For Kindle" button. When I clicked that I was routed over to the Amazon.com website where I could choose the device I wanted to download the book to. Quick and easy. One catch is that you have to be on a WiFi connection; library books won't download over Amazon's free 3G service.

In my case, I was just testing the system and since the number of licenses was so small I felt bad holding onto books that someone might be waiting for. Once I confirmed that the books had arrived on my Kindle I wanted to return them. In order to do this I had to use the Manage My Kindle page on the Amazon site. On the "Your Kindle Library" listing, borrowed titles are indicated as such, and there's a "Return this book" option on the Actions drop down.

When you return a borrowed book, a "stub" stays on your Kindle with an option to buy the book. You can easily remove the stub, of course. The title also remains in "Your Kindle Library" with options to purchase the title, or delete it from the library.

If you don't return the book yourself, Amazon will send you an email reminder 3 days before your license expires. They'll send a second email the day it expires. Once your time is up it'll automatically be removed from the Kindle.

All in all, I was very impressed. Without moving my lazy bum out of my desk chair, I signed up for a library card, browsed the collection, borrowed a couple of books, and returned them. Bouncing between the library's web site and the Amazon site is ever-so-slightly clunky, but it seems a small price to pay. I'm assuming the rather small selection of titles currently available is due to the library wanting to gauge interest in the program before they spend big on licensing. I'm hoping it will be popular and they'll build out their selection.

I haven't been a library user for years, to be honest. I think that's just changed.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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