Borrowing ebooks from the library

The Minuteman Library
, to which my local public library, the Cambridge Public
belongs, has just started loaning out electronic
media, including ebooks.

They have a really good record on computerizing the loan of
dead tree books. Their whole catalog is online, and everyone
who has a library card at any member library can request a book
and get the next available copy shipped to a convenient library branch. You get email when the book arrives, and another
email when it’s due.

Their first try on loaning ebooks isn’t (for me) anything like
as successful, but I’m hoping they just started with something
they could get working fast (it says “Powered by Overdrive”) and will improve it as users point
out problems.

One obvious problem is that there are only about a hundred
ebooks. They do include some newer books, including the two I
requested: Julie
and Julia
, which I have requested, and The
, which I’d put on my Fictionwise wish list,
but didn’t think I really wanted to pay a hard cover price for
it, so I’ve now checked it out of the library as an ebook.

Another problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way
to check back in a book you’re finished with before the due date,
which would seem to be an obvious courtesy to the people behind
you in line.

The checkout itself went smoothly, although it was a little
irritating to have to enter my card number and PIN again, since
the Digital Media Catalog is a separate site, with the same
login and password as the Minuteman Library Network, but it
needs a separate login.

But when I checked out the book, I got a little xml file with
information about the title and the author and the publisher and
the duration of the loan. So the next problem was to get the
software that reads this XML and gets the actual book.

I turned out not to be able to do this on my Linux computer.
So I waited until yesterday, when I needed to log into Windows
to reprogram the remote control anyway.

Downloading Adobe Digital Editions on a windows box wasn’t any
harder than downloading any other Windows software. (That is,
lots more work than “apt-get install program-name”, but not
really difficult.)

Figuring out where to enter the filename of my little xml file
was a lot harder. The “open file” menu item only wanted you to
enter pdf or pdb files, and this was a .acsm file. So I finally
opened up Explorer and moved the little icon from the Explorer
window to the digitaleditions window. I suppose lots of people
would have tried that first, but it really seems like a barbaric
way to have to enter a filename when you already know the

The program seems pretty bare to me. Most of its window is
blank, so even if you maximize the digitaleditions window,
you’re still using less than half the screen for the actual
reading area. And there’s no way to rotate the window so that
you’re using the screen format in the orientation where it’s
aspect ration is similar to that of the printed page. It’s easy to increase or decrease the font size,
and the page up and page down buttons do what you expect, and
things are readable, but of course, even my laptop isn’t really
an ideal size for reading books on.

I was delighted to find that digitaleditions seems to work
perfectly under wine in Linux, so except for the software download, there
isn’t any reason you have to boot Windows to read the books.
(Unfortunately “works perfectly” means you have to use the same
clumsy method to enter the filename as you do under Windows.)

The program is advertised to work on Sony readers and some
ipods, so it may well work better for owners of those devices.
And if they continue to add more titles, it might make sense to
buy a device that works with the software they’re insisting that
you use. (Obviously not for the hundred or so titles they have
now, several of which are public domain anyway.)

Besides being too big and heavy for reading in bed, my current
laptop no longer runs from the battery, so I have to plug it in
anywhere I want to use it, even for a few minutes. Obviously if
one needed a portable computer to read in bed on there are lots
better choices than this.

So if the digital media loan program succeeds and is providing current books for
free in the format of my choice, I may consider buying a better
device for using it on. It would be even better if the loan
program would give you more choice of both software and
hardware, though.

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