Social Distancing

All the Things You Can Do with Your Library Card That Aren't Going to the Library

Audiobooks, archives, music, and a mind-blowing film selection are yours, courtesy of an internet connection and library card number.

By Conner Reed March 17, 2020

Last week, the Multnomah County Library announced it would close all branches, suspend late fees, and stop accepting returns in the wake of COVID-19. On one hand, a tough-but-responsible choice to help curb the local spread of an emerging pandemic. On the other hand ... what are you supposed to read now?

You’ve probably heard people like me shouting about how Libraries Have More Than Just Books before and/or had your local librarians hit you with a series of brochures about newfangled apps. It’s time to dig those out. The apps are here to save us.

Libby is an excellent place to start. Download it from the app or Google Play store, type in your library card number, and you’re off. The interface is a straightforward adaptation of good-ol’ shelf browsing: search for the book you want, check out its availability, and loan or hold up to 20 titles at a time. Loans run for a traditional 21 days, and you can preview any title—ebook or audiobook—before committing. Keep track of what you like (and what you don’t) for personalized recommendations, à la Goodreads.

Kanopy is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the internet’s best-kept streaming secrets. A film subscription service exclusively for universities and libraries, it’s essentially the free Criterion Channel. Plug in your email and your library card and start sifting through thousands of documentaries, a formidable collection of world cinema, and (for the stick-and-poke film student in us all) literally every single A24 title. They curate collections—female-directed, immigration-themed, the New York Times recommends—and have a “recommended for you” algorithm that could beat Netflix’s in a fight with its hands tied behind its back. Only downside? You can stream five titles a month, per licensing restrictions—though there’s a rotating selection of unrestricted titles, and they’re hardly sloppy seconds.

Hoopla doesn’t come close to the ease of Libby’s interface or the pedigree of Kanopy’s selection, but it casts a broader net. It, too, offers ebooks and audiobooks, though Libby’s still your best bet on that front—turn to Hoopla for over 10,000 comics and graphic novels (but note you can’t preview titles the way you can with Libby). If you don’t have a Spotify or Apple Music subscription, Hoopla also offers over 35,000 albums, and while the film selection is more Legally Blonde to Kanopy’s Seventh Seal, it’s still pretty robust, and fills some holes. (For the record: Legally Blonde is a perfect film.) You can grab TV seasons here as well, though the selection is, admittedly, a little grim.

For your magazine fix, check out RBdigital. The service offers both desktop and mobile versions, and while login on a desktop can be finnicky, both deliver the goods. You can browse back issues of around 200 mags, from the New Yorker to Out to Golf Digest, and check out as many as you want at once. When you grab an issue, it first shows up essentially as a PDF, which is nice but a little cumbersome. You can flip through it that way if you wish, or, using the control panel on the left side of your screen, jump to individual articles and read them in a beautiful, digitally optimized format. Play with text size and page color for optimum reading.

If you’re using all this alone time to put together a research project, or maybe you just feel like turning to the past for comfort, check out the Oregonian Archives, where you can read every single issue of our state's paper of record since 1861. (The collection is split into pre- and post-1987.) The search function works exceptionally well: type in keywords and get instant hits from a century and a half of daily journalism. Not bad.

For parents, OverDrive offers ebooks and audiobooks for kids, and you don’t even need a library card! Just a cell phone number will do, and the selection is head-spinning. Tumblebook offers a similar service (library card required), plus language learning tools to supplement the homeschooling. 

You probably have bigger fish to fry right now than going over the July 2019 issue of Trains with a fine-tooth comb. But if you’re looking for distraction or solace (or some combination of the two), consider digging out the library card before you hit up Amazon.

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