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Beacon blog: Yes, that's a library book on my iPad

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2010 - Yesterday, I found out how to use my iPad to read borrowed books from the St. Louis Public Library.

I bought an iPad when they came out, and I love it. While it does a lot of things pretty well, one of the things I like it most for is reading. Reading much of the Web, reading blog posts, reading articles long and short and even reading books.

Yes, it has no Flash capability, but I haven't found that to be a huge problem for reading the Web. I use RSS feeds extensively for reading blog posts and other often-updated sites -- myriad apps will display RSS feeds, and of course you can still use Google Reader on the Web.

For articles, there's a brilliant little app called Instapaper. When I find an article online that I'd like to read but don't have time to at the moment (or if I'm called away in the middle of reading), I have a bookmark I click (this works whether I'm reading the article on my computer at home, at work or on my iPad). This saves the webpage and sends it to storage. Later, I open the Instapaper app on my iPad and it updates to show all the articles I haven't read. They're formatted nicely, the app keeps track of my progress if I'm called away, and I can easily share articles with friends. I am never without something good to read in those odd little 10 or 15 minute chunks of time that pop up unexpectedly.

For books, there are several solutions. Apple's built-in iBooks app and Amazon's Kindle app (iTunes links) are probably two of the most well known. I've found them both to be quite full-featured, yet unobtrusive when all you want to do is read. Because the screen is backlit, there's the added benefit of being able to read before bed without having to get up again to turn out the lights.

But something was missing. While I certainly have dusty bookshelves filled with beloved books that I own, I'm also a fan of the public library for exploration and discovery (though I do tend to keep the books for too long: I have $1.60 in fines as you read this!). I enjoy visiting the library and browsing the shelves, but sometimes I'd like something to read when it's late or on the weekend or when going to the library is otherwise inconvenient.

The St. Louis Public Library does in fact have an electronic lending system called GetItNow, which serves up video, audiobooks and ebooks. The audio is available on a surprising number of devices, video is supported on fewer, and mostly small phone or PDA-like devices. EBooks are officially supported on nine readers as well as desktop and laptop computers.

And we're not talking a small amount of content here, either: there are nearly 1,200 videos, about half as many audiobooks  and just more than 300 ebooks to check out. And you do check them out: books are licensed to you for a certain amount of time (most items I saw were available for a week), after which they become unreadable on your device. The library only has a certain number of licenses for most items, so just like when all copies of a book are on loan from the physical library, sometimes you may be out of luck when borrowing digitally. The St. Louis County Library seems to have more options and offers the same type of eBooks.

If you checked out the "compatible devices for audiobooks" page, you'd notice a lot of Apple products included. There's one caveat: The last time I checked, you had to use a Windows-only program to transfer some audiobooks to an iPod or iPhone. If you checked out the eBooks page, you'd notice that the iPad specifically is excluded. But technology has progressed.

A blog post yesterday alerted me to the availability of a free eBook reader called "Bluefire Reader" (iTunes link), which allows you to read Adobe-licensed eBooks (which is what many libraries, including St. Louis, use) on an iPad. You can't rent and read all from the iPad (like you can buy, download and read books from Amazon or iBooks), and there is a multi-step process you have to follow. All in all, though, it's a small price to pay to be able to borrow a library book 24/7.

Here's the process: Excited by the prospect of virtually visiting the library, I scanned the pages of available books. I found one and "checked out" using a virtual shopping cart like any other eCommerce site. My computer downloaded a file. I had to use a free program from Adobe to open this file. I also had to create a free account and sign in to use this program. The Adobe program generated an eBook file. I used iTunes to send this eBook file to my iPad, where the Bluefire Reader could open it. I also had to sign in to the Bluefire Reader program with the Adobe account, so it would know I was allowed to read the book.

And that's it. I was reading a borrowed book on my iPad. The Bluefire Reader app isn't quite as advanced as the Kindle or iBooks apps, but it has some nice features and gets the job done admirably.

The weather has been quite nice recently, but it's supposed to (finally) turn cold this week. Not only that, but I have some vacation coming up. One way I might spend part of it is finding a nice fireplace somewhere and curling up with a good book.

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