Your local library might have closed its physical doors, but its digital holdings are still open to the public—and at all hours.

Free loans on ebooks, movies, audiobooks, and magazines represent just one aspect of your library’s offerings for enrichment. Your library might also let you read the latest news from the biggest papers, research your ancestors, and dive into specialty topics like the law, writing instruction, and music history.

Not enough? Some libraries even make it possible to learn a new language, automotive repair, or how to code. Students and job hunters can lean on tutoring and career assistance, too.

The bigger your library, the greater the offerings. But even smaller libraries at least provide ebooks for patrons: You may just need to call and ask your librarian for information on how to download them.

How it works

For most locations, your library’s website serves as a portal to myriad third-party services that handle the delivery and management of digital content, information, and instruction. (Smaller libraries may require a phone call or an email to get you started.)

Accordingly, you must have a library card. If you don’t have one yet, most libraries currently are issuing temporary digital cards that you can make permanent when the branches reopen and allow in-person visits.

Tip: Some local libraries are currently letting anyone from within the entire state register for a digital library card—normally, digital cards are limited just to that city or county’s residents.

You also need a computer, tablet, or smartphone on which to access and enjoy the digital content you borrow. In general, the experience is simpler on a laptop or desktop PC, as you often just open a new tab in a browser for whatever external service you are accessing. (Some services, however, still require the installation of a desktop program.)

San Francisco Public Library’s Axis 360 website IDG

For a laptop or desktop PC, you’ll usually access most services in a new browser tab.

On a tablet or a smartphone, you have to install a separate app for almost every service to get the best experience—which can add up. For example, if you’re checking for ebooks across the services of OverDrive, Axis 360, and Hoopla, that’s already multiple apps, and you’ve yet to get into movies, magazines, or more. To get around this, you can use a mobile browser instead, but we found the layout and interface less than ideal.

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