How to be a better e-library patron
December 29, 2018 12:21 AM   Subscribe

I've been reading a lot of library ebooks and am considering paying for a second library card in another city. I'm also considering donating to my local library to offset the costs generated by my heavy use. Looking for some advice from ilbrary-savvy mefites, details inside.

I see that libraries in Brooklyn and Houston will let non-residents buy a library card for a fee. I've been trying to figure out whether that will be worthwhile, and if it IS worthwhile, how to choose between Brooklyn and Houston.

Also, I'm wondering (approximately) how much it costs my library each time I check out an ebook. I'd be happy to set up a recurring donation to compensate the library for my ebook gluttony, I'd just like to know approximately how much that should be.

Thanks for your help!
posted by hungrytiger to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Given the general logistics of ebook distribution, I would have thought that your total lifetime cost to the library as an ebook-only patron is somewhat less than that of somebody who enters the physical library once in their life to use the bathroom.
posted by Ted Maul at 12:45 AM on December 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

Houston is not worth it, much as it pains me to say. There's a list somewhere of how many ebooks each city has. Too tired to look it up just now, but you can google it. Also a list of which cities allow pay memberships. There are many more.
posted by liminal_shadows at 12:51 AM on December 29, 2018

Philadelphia ( has a huge collection of ebooks (at least to me), and lots of other digital materials. And you can buy a non resident card.
posted by james33 at 4:08 AM on December 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I find that Brooklyn has an incredibly long waitlists for anything that’s been in the news or on a notable Best Of list. It also has a huge selection of audio books if that’s your thing.
posted by loriginedumonde at 4:19 AM on December 29, 2018

Here's a list of how much publishers charge libraries for ebooks.
posted by mcduff at 6:08 AM on December 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is going to depend on which ebook service your library has and how the pricing model works for the books you are checking out.

If you are checking out books through (for example) OverDrive or Axis360, mcduff’s link does a pretty good job explaining the pricing structure for the major publishers.

If you are checking out books through hoopla, that particular service works on a pay-per-use basis, regardless of publisher. Every time you check out an item, the library is charged a fee of between 99 cents and $3.99, depending on the item. (Though some libraries choose to set a price cap, so their patrons won’t be able to see items that cost above a certain amount.)
posted by eirin at 7:36 AM on December 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

MobileRead’s Wiki has a list of libraries that offer non-resident cards, along with their holdings, although it seems to be from 2016:
posted by elphaba at 7:55 AM on December 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Pro-tip: nearby cities and counties often have reciprocity built into their library systems - I have three cards where I live, and I could probably get quite a few more. They all have a different selection of ebooks available at any given time and are a fantastic thing.
posted by bensherman at 8:56 AM on December 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

If the libraries you're considering use overdrive for ebooks, you can get a feel for which have the books you're interested in by searching for the book at and then having it show you which libraries have that book.
posted by kbuxton at 10:01 AM on December 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Library admin employee here - it’s awesome that you enjoy this resource, the best thing you can do is donate to your library and/or participate in opportunities to advocate on behalf of the library (ie follow and share posts on social media, write letters to the editor, or even volunteer). The resources are there to be used, so it’s awesome that you are using them - giving back is above and beyond (but very appreciated).
posted by nuclear_soup at 11:46 AM on December 29, 2018 [9 favorites]

I am a latecomer to ebooks, and decided to get off my duff and get a card from the local library chain - in this case, Minuteman, which services most of metro-Boston.

I'm amazed reading mcduff's link at how EXPENSIVE ebooks are for a local library! How is this economical? Or are the prices at this link simply the baseline for negotiation? For a system that essentially leases books, the cost is well above the cost of ownership of a physical volume!
posted by scolbath at 12:59 PM on December 29, 2018

Part of the reason the cost is so high is that physical books will have wear and tear and the ones which are checked out the most will have to be replaced as they get too damaged. Therefore a lot of vendors build cost with that in mind. So they consider that a physical book typically gets checked out x times before being replaced (purchased again) so therefore an ebook which is not going to be damaged should cost x^x. With a physical book, there is still a barrier because the patron has to actually get the book from the library, whereas the ebook is much easier to access (though there is usually a limit to how many can access it at a particular time). Ebooks are expensive because dozens or hundreds of people can read a single copy through a library so vendors want the money.
posted by acidnova at 2:30 PM on December 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

And to add: the expenses incurred by maintaining and growing collections is the main reason why many libraries are part of consortia in order to defray costs ("you'll buy this and we'll buy that and patrons our libraries have access to both").
posted by acidnova at 2:32 PM on December 29, 2018

For a system that essentially leases books, the cost is well above the cost of ownership of a physical volume!

Librarian here. Unlike physical books, ebooks don't wear out. This is a point of contention between publishers and libraries as you might imagine. Rule of thumb is that a library book is $25, ebook or print. Yes, retail books are often cheaper. Some publishers let you own them. It's super complex and larger systems often negotiate bulk rates. This is different from something like Hoopla (video streaming through libraries) where libraries literally pay per use/stream and it's worth knowing that. You might want to know about other options including borrowing ebooks from a place like the Internet Archive which has nearly a million ebooks (nb: I have done work for them) and if you're print disabled (a pretty broad category including people with dyslexia or who can't physically hold print materials) you can jump the waitlists.

Very much agree with nuclear_soup. Be a library supporter. Talk up the library to your reluctant friends. Write letters to the editor or on nextdoor or facebook when they are trying to raise money or do a program. Visit. Go to a program. Libraries are really truly supposed to be a free, the things that a community does basically for itself to help everyone have access to knowledge, a safe space to learn things and clean bathrooms and a warm (or cool) place to sit and just be. Look towards the things that might threaten your library and try to proactively help them deal with that. Donating money is great. Maybe offering to pay off fines that other people have incurred who can't pay them back?
posted by jessamyn at 4:39 PM on December 29, 2018 [10 favorites]

Librarian chiming in on the "go to library programs" advice. Please! Go to programs! There is nothing more disheartening than working your butt off to come up with new, interesting programs, and then not having anyone show up for them.
posted by sarcasticah at 11:54 AM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

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