Save Money, Travel Light: Borrow Ebooks from the Library

Zion National Park from Observation Point

Last week, I sat and enjoyed a book at Observation Point in Zion National Park. Just me and a setting sun to the west, plus chipmunks questing for my trail mix as I read. I wasn’t paging through a tome I lugged to the viewpoint; for years, the majority of the books I read have been digital. While I prefer hard-copy versions, finding anything other than a “Take One, Leave One” copy of a lusty bodice ripper or a Clancy thriller is tough to find when traveling. Instead, I borrow ebooks through our library back home.

Most times I mention this to someone, they’re surprised it’s an option…which means I needed to write a blog post about it. Wondering if it would be helpful, I searched and discovered a Pew Internet survey that found 48% of e-reader owners didn’t know if their library offered ebook rentals. I also learned that close to one-third of book purchases are made by libraries each year, which means by supporting your library, you are also supporting authors.

Let me dispel any confusion: you can borrow both ebooks and audiobooks from your local library, even when you’re traveling. If you read dozens of a books per year the way I do, borrowing ebooks can save you hundreds of dollars versus buying books.

This is no place to sit and read! 100 degrees AFTER sunset in Death Valley NP at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, it's the lowest point in the U.S.

This is no place to sit and read! 100 degrees AFTER sunset in Death Valley NP at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in the U.S. These salt flats and formations were neato!

You don’t need a Kindle or other e-reader device to borrow ebooks. With just a smartphone or a tablet, and the Kindle, Nook, or iBooks app, you can check out ebooks from the library through a simple process. Here’s what you do:

  1. Get a library card! If you don’t have one, head to your local library branch and pick one up.
  2. Set up an online account to download the ebooks. The most common (and the ones I recommend) are Amazon’s Kindle, OverDrive or 3M Reader. With accounts at both Amazon and OverDrive, I’m able to download most ebook formats.
  3. After you have an Amazon, OverDrive, and 3M Reader account, you need to tie that in with your library. I use my home library in Multnomah County. To get dialed with yours, go to and do a quick search for your library. Heads up that you’ll need your library card number and password to set things up.
  4. After you have your accounts (they’re free, by the way), downloading a book is simple. Use the search feature on your local library’s website, choose a book and then pick the ebook or audiobook version instead of the paper copy. Follow the instructions and download the books.
  5. If there insufficient digital licenses available to borrow, you simply jump in the queue the same way a regular book hold works. The library will email you when your book is available to download and you’ll have three days to “pick up” your book.
  6. Once you download a book, open the reading app on your phone/tablet and *MAGIC* the book appears. It will even sync across your multiple devices. Sorry, but you still have to actually read the book – there is no instant-download of the information into your brain. (Give it five years…)

I mostly read on my iPhone, which gives me the opportunity to sneak in 5-10 minute book breaks throughout the day. Using my phone lets me avoid buying another device, such as a Kindle or specific e-reader, though some people dislike reading on a smartphone because the font is small. Not to worry, you can change settings to use text so big that Andre the Giant would have loved to read it. Audiobooks are definitely best for your phone – listen to them on a bike ride, run or while driving and you’ll be amazed how you crank through pages. I listened to seven audiobooks last July during our bike tour.

The other upside to an ebook is that it fits nicely in a digital note system like the Secret Weapon (Evernote + Getting Things Done). I highlight quotes for future reference, which is incredibly easy with Amazon’s database. While I’d like to own powers of memory an SAT-prepping teen would envy, the reality is that I consume a dizzying amount of information and need some way to keep track of it. Digital books make that easy. Amazon even has a service that will flip through popular highlights in a book to help refresh your memory of a book.

Update 7/28/15: Digital books through the library are great for picking up travel guides without having to buy a specific book. I like this especially for a tiny country where we’ll only spend a few days. For example, we are currently at the Croatian border and I just downloaded a guide for Slovenia, which we pedal into tomorrow on our cycle tour through Europe.

Chelsea walks across Badwater in Death Valley NP. There's a tiny white sign on the cliff above her that reads, "Sea Level."

Chelsea walks across Badwater in Death Valley NP. There’s a tiny white sign on the cliff above her that reads, “Sea Level.”

Beyond the library, maybe you already have a Kindle library full of ebooks? Check out Lendle, which lets you borrow a book if you lend one ( is another). eBookFling is similar, plus it expands beyond the Kindle to Nook, iOS, BlackBerry and Android readers.

So what’s the downside to borrowing ebooks? Just one thing: time limits for reading. When you borrow an ebook, you usually only get 14-21 days to read it. There aren’t any late fees, but the book disappears from your device when your time is up. You can always borrow it again though!

For travelers, I have found this is an easy way to cut down on the weight/bulk of carrying hard copy books and save money versus buying them. When I hear of a book I want to read, I first check with the library, then go to Amazon if a digital copy isn’t available to borrow. Quick, seamless, and simple, the way reading should be. Enjoy!

Grinning it up in Death Valley.

Reunited with my travel buddy!