A Beginner’s Guide to Libby and Borrowing Ebooks from the Library

Now that you have an overview of some amazing LGBT+ ebooks you can get from the library, all you gotta do is borrow them. If you’ve never borrowed ebooks before, however, you might not really know where to start. By the end of this thorough beginner’s guide, you will know how to borrow, read, and even return ebooks using your library.

Where can you borrow ebooks?

Library ebooks are available through a service called Overdrive. Overdrive has its own app, but (and this is where it gets confusing) there is also a separate app by Overdrive called Libby. Both apps allow you to borrow and read books. However, Libby has some extra features and is generally more developed for people who read on their phones. I personally don’t use Overdrive, but I can highly recommend Libby.

Why the Libby app?

The two main features that differentiate Libby from Overdrive are the search function and the tagging system. The tags were my favourite aspect of Libby when I first started using the app—I tagged everything. They work similarly to StoryGraph tags or Goodreads shelves; if you find a book you want to read in the future, you can tag it however you like. The browsing function on Libby also works like a charm. You can simply search for titles and authors, or you can browse categories and see what’s available.

Adding your library card

The easiest way to borrow digital books through the Libby app is if you already have an existing library card. Simply press the large, round icon on the bottom of the screen and it will open up the relevant menu. Now select “add a library” and search for yours.

If you don’t have a card yet, you can request one from your local library. The logistics of this vary from library to library, so look up your library’s website or call them for information. Some libraries can set up your card really quickly with just your phone number, while others need more paperwork.

Searching for library books

Once you’re all signed up, the fun can begin. I don’t know about you, but I love browsing library catalogues. I probably enjoy it more than actually reading the books!

Head to the search icon in the bottom left corner and type in an author, book title or even publisher. You can filter your search by language, genre, ebook vs. audiobook, and more.

If you have a particular publisher in mind, find a book by that publisher, and click on it. A description will pop up, alongside some metadata. Locate the publisher by scrolling down the page, and click on it. An overview of all available books by the selected publisher will pop up (sometimes more than show up in a direct search).

If you’d rather find out what’s new or what’s popular or just browse your library’s genres and categories, click on the little card icon next to the search function on the bottom of the screen.

Borrowing and placing a hold

If your library has the book you’re searching for, you can either directly borrow it, or place a hold if it’s not currently available.

If you borrow the book, it will be instantly added to your library. You can adjust your settings to choose whether you want borrowed books to download automatically and while using mobile data. Downloaded books will remain in your library for a specified amount of time (usually 21 days). You can see when your books are due on your bookshelf, which can be accessed through the books icon at the bottom of the screen.

If all copies of the book are taken, you will be able to see how many people have a copy, how many are waiting for one, and how long it will approximately take for you to get yours. If you decide to join the waitlist, the book will appear in your library under holds. Once it’s available, it will automatically move to borrowed books.

Tagging library books in Libby

If you like your digital bookshelves to be nice and organised, I recommend making use of the Libby tags. Simply select one of your books and choose or create a tag for it.

Tags are personal and should reflect the way you like to organise your books. Consider tagging books by genre, country of origin and purpose (e.g. for a book club). You may also want to mark which books are translated and if any of them have queer representation.

International access to your library

The best part of the OverDrive system is that it doesn’t change no matter where you are in the world. Imagine that you have a library card from Singapore, but are on holiday or even permanently living in London. You can still search for, borrow, place a hold on, and tag books from the Singaporean catalogue!

When you access your library’s catalogue while overseas, just ensure that your device’s time and place are set according to your location. If your device’s settings don’t match your location, an error message will pop up. This might prevent you from downloading books.

The main drawback of the OverDrive system is that it’s not connected to every library and every country worldwide. However, OverDrive has expanded in the past few years, and now has access to a total of 75 countries. It’s also considerably expanded its available languages. If you are interested in reading digital library books, it’s definitely worth checking if OverDrive is available in your country.

Reading ebooks in the Libby app

Reading ebooks in the Libby app is really easy. You can open up a borrowed book by simply clicking on it. While reading, your phone will be in full-screen mode, making the reading experience distraction-free. If you tap the centre of the screen, however, a few things pop up. You will see your battery status and the rest of your phone’s top bar, alongside some options within Libby.

At the bottom of the screen, the page number you are on will appear. This is also where you can find the name of the chapter or section you are reading. You can jump back to the beginning of the chapter or skip to the next one using the little arrows on either side of the section title. If you click on the title itself, a list of all of the book’s chapters and sections will pop up for easy navigation.

At the top, you can find the search function to look up specific words inside the book, a bookmarking tool to save the page for later and reading preferences.

The reading preferences are particularly useful and worth playing around with. You can set the font size, including optional accessibility sizes, page brightness and colouring, and the overall book design.

Once you are happy with your settings, you can start reading the actual book. Simply swipe or tap the side of the screen to move between pages. To highlight passages within the book, hold down the screen and move your finger along, then select ‘highlight’.

Listening to audiobooks in the Libby app

While this is mostly a guide to ebooks, I want to give a few pointers on audiobooks as well.

While the borrowing process is the same, the reading experience varies considerably. The bottom of the screen now displays time codes instead of page numbers, so you can find out how long each chapter is. You can also rewind or fast-forward by 15 seconds in case you got distracted and missed part of the plot.

The top bar is also fairly different. You can set the narration speed to the standard 1x, a speedier 1.25x, 1.5x, or 1.75x, or a max of 2x. I personally find anything above 1x too fast and distorting, so I like to stick to the standard speed, but lots of people like a faster narration style.

A nifty audiobook feature in the Libby app is the sleep setting. It will automatically stop your audiobook from playing after the end of the chapter, 15 minutes, half an hour or one hour. This is particularly useful for people who like to listen to audiobooks before going to sleep. Surprisingly, you can bookmark audiobooks too— simply click the bookmark when you reach the time code you want to highlight.

Returning books to your digital library

Something I kept wondering when I started using Libby is whether the app would automatically return books that are due. I found the answer when I completely forgot to return a book for a whole week, then opened the app one day, and saw that it had been automatically returned on time.

If you are done with a book before its due date and don’t want it hanging out on your shelf, you can return it early. The app will also inform you if someone has placed a hold on a book on your shelf. If you change your mind about reading a book you borrowed and someone is waiting for it, it’s a nice gesture to return it early. This gives the other person access to it.

To return a book early, simply select ‘manage loan’ and ‘return early.’ Remember that the library is for sharing, and hoarding books is not nice!

Keeping track of your reading

If you’re someone who likes to look back on what you’ve read and borrowed over time, the Libby app allows you to do that through the timeline feature. I’m pretty sure this is a new add-on from a recent update—I haven’t used it much, but if your memory frequently fails you, it can be a helpful feature.

Just head to the clock icon in the bottom right corner and you’ll see all of your activity on the app. It’s basically a timeline of all the books you’ve borrowed, placed a hold on and returned.

You can also narrow down the timeline to show only your loans, holds, renewals or returns; just select one of the categories at the top of the screen. If you don’t want the app to track your activity at all, head to ‘actions’ in the top right corner and select ‘disable activity recording’ and ‘remove all activities.’

You can download the Libby app from the Play Store and Apple Store. For more information about the app, you can also check out the OverDrive website.

Yaiza is a content writer, magazine editor and creative author based in Singapore. She uses this space to write about books.