Library eBooks can be Frustrating!

Overdrive for iPhoneFirst – go read this – I am a frustrated eBook (non) user, by Sarah Houghton-Jan (you do read her blog, right? It rocks). Then come back, and let’s discuss.

I have to admit, I had a VERY similar experience with the iPhone Overdrive app. I spent a goodly chunk of time trying to figure it out, and gave up (planning to get back to it eventually). Instructions on use? There are some, but they didn’t make sense to me. I’m sure this one’s my fault, since I don’t usually listen to audiobooks … but still.

I was finally able to “successfully” check something out. But I guess it was already “checked out,” so I didn’t immediately get the book. Nope. I had to wait for 3 days, then received an email saying my download was ready. I was busy, so missed my window of opportunity to download the book… so now, I need to start over again!

My questions –

  • Why is Overdrive that hard to use? If Sarah and I can’t easily figure this thing out, our patrons won’t be able to, either. They’ll try once, then go use something else.
  • Thinking of my library here – normal books? Easy to check out. Videos in our Mediabank DVD dispenser? Easy as RedBox or an ATM machine to use. Overdrive? Hard enough to use that we set up a special PC right by our Reference desk so we can help patrons figure the thing out.
  • Check out the pic to the right – it’s the iPhone app. Help is prominently featured, front and center, right over the iPhone’s Home button) . At the least, that sends the wrong message. Why can’t there be something like “3 easy steps to downloading?” when you turn on the app for the first time, then have Help go under a secondary menu? If you really need Help on the main page, you probably need to redesign.
  • It’s a digital file – why can’t I access the ebook when someone else has it “checked out?” That doesn’t make much sense to me.
  • Why doesn’t the app have me make a connection to my local library the first time I use it? The process goes like this: download app, turn app on. Read Help. Click a link … that takes you out of the app, and onto the web. It would be much better to at least keep me in the app.

I know, I know – DRM. That’s the problem, right? I’m not completely buying that. At least SOME of the problem is on the design and usability end (of at least Overdrive). But there HAS to be an easier way to manage DRM concerns, like allowing someone to check out stuff, but then adding one extra step or something that makes you “prove” you’ve deleted the file? Netflix’s digital downloads and the movie rental part of iTunes are similar (except for that whole for-profit thing) to a library setup. They also deal with people “borrowing” their stuff, some of it even digitally. But it’s easy. Why can’t our library vendors (Overdrive, Netlibrary, etc) also build something easy to use and manage?

ALA Annual’s coming up. These are GREAT questions to start asking there.

  • Andy Woodworth

    DRM is the tip of the proverbial iceberg here. The Overdrive app is frustrating in and of itself; I've had it freeze/crash on me enough times that it presents a limitation. Even when it's running, it has to launch another application (Safari or whatever web browser) to get you to where you can *search* for the downloadable content.

    It's only when you persevere through the app and the website, THEN you reach the DRM question. It can be on a Mac, but not a PC; it can be on an iPod, but not an MP3 player; it can be burned to CD, but only when the moon is full and the cricket hops three times.

    I never made it to download. I arrived at the point where I'd rather just borrow the audio CDs, rip them into iTunes (a process much faster than Overdrive), and use the honor system to remove them after my self ascribed 'lending period' was over.

    Crappy app, crappy interface, and a crappy assortment of DRM permissions makes for the construction of Crap Mountain. Who cares if the library has downloadable content if no one can access it? It operates under Alice in Wonderland style rules, where items have different permissions based on unknown variables.

    Here's the conversation to have with Overdrive:
    “Listen, we like the concepts behind your product, but you have to do this: reject any content that has two or more limitations on it. I don't expect unfettered content overnight, but this is where we are going to start. As the customer (the person with the checkbook), I'm now going to reject inclusion of any title that doesn't meet this new criteria. I don't care if the publishers don't like it; they will like it less when they see their check next month.”

    Downloadable content needs a reality check right now.

  • Librista

    Please please please do something at ALA (though I cannot go!). At night I am on Questionpoint. I cover something like 89 queues with public and academic libraries coast to coast and growing Growing GROWING is the group of totally pissed off patrons trying to use the ebooks that are featured PROMINENTLY on their libraries' web pages. Many of … See Morethese people BOUGHT DEVICES SPECIFICALLY FOR THE PURPOSE OF CHECKING EBOOKS OUT OF THEIR LIBRARIES and things are not working. Sometimes we can make it happen, but so often it is absolutely impossible. So then we have patrons who think we lead them on to make a purchase in tough times which can't be supported–even if they picked a device that was cited as supported by Overdrive (this is probably helping the Playaway market immensely!)

  • Bookfarmer

    Our library participates in the state's OverDrive pilot program, and it can be a nightmare to download books. Three of us spent nearly an hour one day trying to download a book to a Sony Reader. And what about iPads? OverDrive has several formats, but I don't think any of them will work on the iPad. I agree with you and Sara. There's got to be an easier way….

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  • Andy Woodworth

    Ok, so I broke out my iPad and steeled myself to go through the whole experience. Here's what it looked it, step by step:

    (1) Open Overdrive app.
    (2) Fumbled around till I found the link in the app for the link to the catalog.
    (3) Opened the link, left Overdrive, went into Safari.
    (4) Took me half a minute to realize that “Creator” was the term they were using for Author, since I was going to look for an ebook by author (in this case, Michael Pollan).
    (5) Rejected a search for “Pollan M”, worked for just “Pollan”
    (6) Got one of his earlier books, The Botany of Desire. Was a bit overwhelmed by a listing of EVERY library that has rights to it, hyperlinked in the browser.
    (7) Eventually found my library, clicked on the link.
    (8) It took me to our Overdrive catalog. Ok, now I'm kinda back to territory I know.
    (9) Added the book to my “bookbag”. Was taken to a “keep going or check out” page. Luckily, I picked a book that was able to be downloaded to an iPod.
    (10) Went to checkout. Entered my card # and pin.
    (11) Got a confirmation page. Clicked on the link to Download.
    (12) It went back to the Overdrive app. The book was listed on my Library.
    (13) Looked at it for about a minute before realizing it was not downloading. Clicked on Downloads. Saw nothing.
    (14) Went back to the Library screen. Clicked on the book. Got a message asking me if I wanted to download. Said yes, then got taken to the Download screen which was now full of parts.
    (15) Clicked Download all. Got a popup 'confirm' box. Clicked yes.

    It's been about 15 minutes and it's almost done downloading all 10 parts.

    I can't help but wonder if I had picked a non-iPod book how that would have gone. So, overall, it worked, but I think I got a little lucky.

  • John Long

    this is pretty much exactly what I ran into when I tried to use the overdrive app, I installed it there were 0 instructions and when I clicked help it crashed. Eventually I got a book to start downloading but if i switched between wifi and edge for whatever reason it had to be restarted. Eventually i just gave up.

  • Justin The Librarian

    Awesome post sir.

    “Why is Overdrive that hard to use?”
    -I found myself asking this same question when I used to toil away with my patrons at the Cape May County Library. They'd bring in their EReaders, instructions and all, and I'd spend a good 1-2 hours with them just figuring things out. 90% of the time it ended in failure and they left the library pretty disappointed. I didn't want this to happen but no matter what I did it always ended poorly.

    I'll be at ALA the whole time. Would love to talk more about this. Also, I highly suggest speaking with Heather McCormack of Library Journal on this topic. (@hmccormack on Twitter). She's got a lot of knowledge on this topic.

  • walt crawford

    “It’s a digital file – why can’t I access the ebook when someone else has it “checked out?” That doesn’t make much sense to me.”

    I suspect you're being a little disingenuous here. You know the answer: Because your library paid for a single copy. From a writer's or publisher's perspective, I think that's a reasonable answer–libraries get to buy one copy and lend it out many times, but only to one borrower at a time. Need to lend two copies simultaneously? Buy two copies.

    Yes, digital is different, but if digital means “everybody in the community can borrow it simultaneously,” thus pretty much eliminating any ebook sales of the item, digital is going to cost one heck of a lot more.

  • Booklover472

    I can't list all the steps I went through, but I have downloaded a WMA file before and listened to it on my computer.

    But since I have an iPhone now, wanted to try to listen to a book on it. Went online to the digital books section of my public library's website and was excited to find a MP3 version of a book a friend just recommended. I put it in my cart, then checked it out, and downloaded it – to my computer.

    That was Sunday night. Yesterday I transferred the book to my iPhone – but it wasn't showing up in the OverDrive App. In fact, I had to do a search to find it on my iPhone. It is in iTunes but doesn't show up as a book. I can listen to it through iTunes, but can't transfer it to the OverDrive App. Sigh…

    Thought I'd try it again – this time on my iPhone. Was able to finally find a book I wanted to listen to and checked it out on my iPhone and then downloaded all six parts. I've listened to the first part and everything is going well…for now.

    Reading about others' problems has me a bit concerned.

  • Michelle A Garcia

    It depends on the e-book vendor. We have EBL, which is a demand -driven model, which is a bit different than some of the other e-book providers, and it allows for unlimited users per title at any time. After a certain number of reads, we automatically purchase the title and we are entitled to x number of reads for the rest of the year. If the title is popular and the allotted reads are used up before the end of the year, we can then purchase an additional copy if we choose, and double the amount of times the title can be read. At the beginning of the new year, the use count resets.
    It is an interesting model, but not without some of the other issues you note in your post, David. Thanks for the great post!

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  • RPM

    You've nailed it. The interface is atrocious. I rarely find a digital book that I want to check out (although the ILS is partly to blame here), and when I do it's hard to check out. I've yet to find out how to check a book in early — say I start reading something and decide it's not for me; someone has to wait for the checkout period to end, even though I'm finished with it.

  • Jimmy the Geek

    Walt, you hit the nail on the head. With Overdrive, at least in our KY Libraries Unbound consortium, libraries pay per copy of books, just like in the physical library. There are some titles that are unlimited in number of copies available, called 'always available' titles. But the Digital Restrictons Management (DRM) scheme in this case is attempting to protect the salaries of both author an publisher. Not defending OverDrive, just explaining the model a bit.

  • Buffy Hamilton

    Hi Fran!

    Reading these posts makes me glad I have not jumped in the fray as of yet and even more convinced that for the short term, these traditional sources of ebooks are just not going to work for us, including those of us in K12.

    I'd love to talk to you, Heather, and CathyJo soon about this—maybe we can set up a Skype time for the four of us?


  • michael

    I just ran across a great visual of the frustration of DRM, using Overdrive as an example. It's ridiculous that technology librarians often can't get the service to work properly.

    I think a more standard file type would resolve a lot of issues. Audio files are mostly now in three categories: mp3, aac, wma. Most devices will play at least 2 of the 3 formats. Amazon sells digital music DRM-free, but it doesn't sell ebooks in a DRM-free non-proprietary format. Interesting? Yes.

    For me to read an ebook on overdrive I have to use Adobe Digital Editions (which blows) and read the book on my computer. It's far easier to read it on my iPhone. Oh yeah, you can't do that. Unless you decrypt the DRM from the ePub file.

  • Guest

    Our library has featured OverDrive content for about 6 years now. While a bit clumsy at first, the Media Console and related software work like a charm after you get used to how they operate.

    We have several hundred unique users who really enjoy the service, with very few problems reported. Most of those are due to device issues (trying to transfer titles to a Kindle which will only accept Amazon's proprietary content, attempting to play Windows Media tracks on an iPod, or read and Adobe eBook on devices which don't support Flash–Apple again). There are plenty of e-readers (and any PC) that handle these files with ease. A little common sense goes a long way here…I don't put diesel fuel in a car that runs on unleaded gasoline.

    We have a 'quick start' guide to walk patrons through the (admittedly, complicated) set up process. After that, it's as easy as purchasing something online–throw it in the cart, proceed to checkout, click on download. The Media Console does the rest.

    There are 'Max Access' titles available, which can be checked out by more than one patron at a time. Most of the other content is purchased just the same as books–x number of copies are ordered as our Collection Development Manager deems necessary. As for the DRM and early checkin issues, those criteria are set by the publishing houses. OverDrive has found some willing to offer MP3 audiobooks (despite valid piracy concerns) and has introduced an option where the patron can set their own loan period in response to calls for early returns (Adobe eBooks are currently the only format that can be 'checked in' before the 'due date.')

    I'll be the first to call for a more streamlined experience, but until there is a better way to protect the authors' works, it's worth the minimal hassle to access library content wherever and whenever I want.

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  • Carrie S.

    I'm so glad that I'm not the only one! I can't figure out how to use the Overdrive app, and have stopped trying. It's so frustrating!

  • davidleeking

    From Debby via email:

    I love OverDrive & use it all the time — in fact I have 6 accounts with different library organizations. Right now I have 14 eBooks on a library Sony Reader that I'm taking to our AF/Navy/Army Librarians' Workshop next week.

    Most of my issues stem from the fact that OverDrive runs over Windows Media. If Windows Media isn't current or the system doesn't recognize the security certificate, you're not going anywhere. Download instructions seem to vary from library to library if I remember correctly since I haven't compared them lately. I couldn't figure out the ones by my public library (4 years ago??), completely disregarded them, and figured them out on my own eventually, and I am not a tech person – no smartphone, PDA, Apple gear. For audio I only have a Sansa Clip and I’ve outgrown it and really need something better.

    Lately I've been using OverDrive tutorials & presentations to work with staff in learning the ins & outs of OverDrive (and only with folks who want to learn), and I've even learned things that I didn't know. Because a library can customize the way OverDrive looks on the library's website, you see a huge variation in friendliness of the OverDrive screen. The one used by the US Navy is fabulous.

    In the next week or so we'll be getting our OverDrive software for the dedicated download station (if you're not using this you may be breaking your license agreement with OverDrive), and I'm very excited that we'll be able to off this service to them. We also offer MP3 players for checkout, so we've typically worked with the patrons to download their books for them before they even come in. Then they just pick up the MP3 player and they are out the door, and they love us.

    We also have Sony readers, and again, OverDrive must work with Adobe Digital Reader. Once I watched our tech person do a download, I duplicated the process on my personal laptop w/o a hitch. Only problem with the Reader, and Sony seems to know this, is that sometimes the Reader doesn't like it when you mix EPUBS & PDFs on the same Reader. So when I'm picking books I choose only one format for that period. Frankly though, I like the way the EPUBS appear on the Reader more than the PDF format.

    And I have no problem with waiting for a “copy” to be available. I don't think that concept is much different than a database vendor charging for library access only vs. remote access and with how many “seats.” For example, JSTOR is very affordable for in house use, but you add remote access and the price really gets expensive.

    I'm no rocket scientist, and I'm sure that not only do I not understand all of the issues; I probably don't have a keen grasp of what all the issues might be. I freely offer my comments to OverDrive often via twitter, and I love communicating with them. I think their selection is great (and remember it's sometimes only as good as the library person doing the choosing), and as a patron, I love the service and cost to me (free!).

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  • Midwest Tape News and Views

    Midwest Tape linked to your post at

  • Midwest Tape News and Views

    Midwest Tape linked to your post at

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  • Fiona


    Hi David, how did the OverDrive Download Station ‘rollout’ go? I am interested to know as I have a query relating to it and cannot for the life of me find any answers online… Cheers Fiona (Australia)

  • davidleeking

    Hi, Fiona! That was actually from Debby, who had emailed me. I DO have an Overdrive download station for customers, and it’s going ok – usually, it’s a staff-mediated thing. We show people how to hook their device up, put a book on it, stuff like that – and then, I’m guessing they start using the service from home.

  • Braehenry

    I love Overdrive from my local library. It works very well. If you read the instructions and follow them, there shouldn’t be a problem. Print the instructions out and follow to the “T”. Those who do, generally, do not have a problem with Overdrive. Often Mac folks do because it is a bit more complicated and sometimes they have missed a step. Once set up, it is a breeze. In all the years I have been downloading digital books (audio and ebooks) I have never had a problem and never had a frustration. Do I live in a different world?

  • davidleeking

    Thanks for the comment! I’m saying this slightly tongue-in-cheek – You DO
    live in a different world. I’m guessing you work in a library? Most of us
    are detail-oriented people who actually read the directions.

    Our patrons are not. Case in point is my example – very smart, very
    successful, very web-savvy patron … and he had trouble figuring it out.

    On the web, if you have to read the instructions, you’ve probably failed to
    build the site/service in a user-friendly way.
    We frequently have to walk patrons through figuring it out – don’t you guys?

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  • iPhone Application Developers

    Excellent post and wonderful blog, I really like this type of interesting articles keep it up.