I’ve been waiting for this for awhile: Overdrive, the digital-lending service that the Chicago Public Library and 11,000-odd other libraries use, will soon be compatible with Kindle; it’ll also allow note-taking. It’s a good business move for Amazon, which has been criticized in the past for trying to limit the device to the Kindle store—I got a Sony Reader a couple years ago just because Kindle’s lack of support for library lending was a deal-breaker.
And it should be good for the CPL, too: Kindle functionality will result in more people knowing about the Overdrive service; I’ve been surprised about how few of my friends know about it. I’ve got the Overdrive app on my iPad, and it’s very easy to use. You can browse the library’s selection within the application, it downloads the book or audiobook directly to the iPad, and is ready to go in a matter of seconds. Ditto with the Android app; I’ve found books while killing time at the bus stop so I could have them for the iPad when I got home.
"Does This Mark The End Of The Local Library?"* No. Overdrive’s selection is comparable to that of a small-town library, compared to ten million volumes in the Chicago Public Library system. And if the mess over the Google Books settlement is any indication, it’s unlikely that the collection will grow fast enough to be anything more than a nice convenience anytime soon. There are a lot of copyrighted orphan books out there, and the best place to find them is still our interconnected physical libraries, the original world wide web.
And that’s what Overdrive is right now: if you just want something good to read or listen to right now, you’re in luck. If you want something specific and fairly new (or a pre-copyright classic), your odds are okay; they’ve got The Pale King on audio, but not in e-book form. If you need something very specific and sort of obscure—like the 1962 NBI Press edition of Calumet "K" I had to have—you’ll probably have to go to your meatspace library, which should continue to provide almost any book you desire for the next few decades at least.
* Though I can envision, at some point in the future when we have jetpacks and flying cars, public libraries getting smaller and relying on places like my old employer, the Center for Research Libraries: basically a giant warehouse of books and journals that don’t get used enough to store at a real library, but are dispatched via Interlibrary Loan when needed. It’s kind of a wonderful place if you like libraries—sort of the secret elephant burial ground of publications, storing Cuban sugar research journals, Estonian food-quality journals, Soviet-era academic astronomy publications. In their digital collections, they’ve got the first ten years of Chicago’s oldest Polish-language newspaper, slavery and manumission manuscripts of Timbuktu, early Chinese communist pamphlets, and more.