Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.


Paid Library Card Memberships: Cost-Effective Access to Audiobooks & Ebooks

If you are a voracious consumer of ebooks and audiobooks, public libraries are a fantastic way to access this content for free (especially if you spend more than you’d like on Audible and Kindle books). Unfortunately, the quality of a digital library collections varies from system to system. Some library systems provide extensive ebook collections while others are sorely lacking due to insufficient funding and patronage.[1] If you do live in an underserved part of the U.S. or just want to supplement your local library’s digital book collection with that from another library, there is another option: a paid library card membership.

A handful of U.S. public libraries offer library cards for non-residents with no in-person registration requirement.[2] These libraries allow prospective patrons to  register online without residing or ever setting foot in their library district. Note that these non-resident cards typically limit borrowing to the online collection (where ebooks and audiobooks are delivered via popular 3rd party services OverDrive, Axis 360, Hoopla and others).

While the idea of paying for library access might be antithetical to many, it can make financial sense for avid readers who don't have good options available locally. What follows is a list of the libraries that offer paid membership programs (all of which offer lending via the popular OverDrive service).

I rely on OverDrive stats in the survey below since that is the most popular of the ebook lending services (rounded down to nearest 1000). I also list the Kindle titles available since sending being able to send books to a Kindle Paperwhite is a particularly important feature for me..


Five Public Libraries that Offer Paid Membership for Non-Residents (and no in-person application requirement)

Brooklyn Public Library (New York)
* Annual Fee: $50
* Application: https://disc.bklynlibrary.org/card/
* OverDrive collection: 167,000 titles (110,000 Kindle titles, 35,000 audiobooks)
* Other collections: cloudLibrary, Flipster

Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina)
* Annual Fee: $45
* Application: https://www.cmlibrary.org/getacard
* OverDrive collection: 23,000 titles (17,000 Kindle titles, 3,000 audiobooks)
* Other collections: Hoopla, Kanopy (video), RBdigital

Fairfax County Library (Virginia)
* Annual Fee: $27
* Application: https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/library/non-resident-library-card-application
* OverDrive collection: 44,000 titles (21,000 Kindle titles, 14,000 audiobooks)
* Other collections: RBdigital

Houston Public Library (Texas)
* Annual Fee: $40
* Application: https://houstonlibrary.org/my-link-library-card-registration
* OverDrive collection: 60,000 titles (37,000 Kindle titles, 16,000 audiobooks)
* Other collections: Hoopla, RBdigital

Orange County Library (Florida)
* Annual Fee: $125
* Application: https://www.ocls.info/using-library/purchase-a-fee-card
* OverDrive collection: 138,000 titles (90,000 Kindle titles, 25,000 audiobooks)
* Other collections: Axis 360, Freading, Kanopy (video), Hoopla, RBdigital


Which paid library membership is best? The answer is “it depends.” From a price standpoint, Fairfax County is the clear winner at $27. The size of the Fairfax audiobook collection is also notable. For collection size the answer is clearly Brooklyn, though Orange County is a close second.

It’s worth considering availability of titles and wait-times. This is difficult to evaluate without looking at specific examples or genres of particular interest.

Here’s a snapshot list (as of article publication date) comparing total OverDrive titles that are "Available Now" for immediate checkout. This figure is distinct from the total number of titles cited above and represents the total titles less those with no available copies as they are on loan to other patrons.[3]

LibraryTitles "Available Now"As % of Total
Brooklyn132,00079%
Charlotte17,00074%
Fairfax30,00068%
Houston34,00057%
Orange County117,00085%

Popular titles and recent releases will be difficult to obtain regardless of the library system. Total number of digital copies per title also varies by library system. I performed a short, unscientific sample of several titles to compare the number of OverDrive copies.

Here are the titles used in the survey:
* Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling (fiction)
* The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (fiction)
* Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (fiction)
* Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl (non-fiction)
* Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (non-fiction)
* Atomic Habits by James Clear (non-fiction)

The tables below show the results of this survey. Note that these are based on the library OverDrive collections and represent the total copies available for lending as of this post's publication date. Actual availability will vary since I am not recording that information in the tables below.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

LibraryAudio CopieseBook CopiesTotal
Brooklyn131225
Charlotte17623
Fairfax331144
Houston10212
Orange County341448

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

LibraryAudio CopieseBook CopiesTotal
Brooklyn105262
Charlotte273966
Fairfax425799
Houston235
Orange County244670

Of Mice and Men

LibraryAudio CopieseBook CopiesTotal
Brooklyn235
Charlotte336
Fairfax549
Houston213
Orange County459

Save Me the Plums

LibraryAudio CopieseBook CopiesTotal
Brooklyn82634
Charlotte41014
Fairfax101626
Houston112
Orange County459

Sapiens

LibraryAudio CopieseBook CopiesTotal
Brooklyn314879
Charlotte171229
Fairfax134356
Houston639
Orange County241135

Atomic Habits

LibraryAudio CopieseBook CopiesTotal
Brooklyn24024
Charlotte362359
Fairfax5745102
Houston112
Orange County432669

As you can see from this small sample set the number of copies for a given title varies considerably from library to library. It is worth noting that the Houston Library consistently shows a surprisingly low number of copies regardless of title (this trend continued when I searched for other titles as well). Fairfax County, on the other hand, continuously punches above its weight when it comes to copies of audiobooks and ebooks. Given this additional input, a paid membership for the Fairfax library seems like a tremendous bargain, especially for audiobook enthusiasts.

I hope the information above proves helpful to folks interested in need of a paid library membership or who are interested in expanding their digital library offerings. If I’ve missed any libraries offering paid memberships, don’t hesitate to let me know. I can be reached via my contact page.


[1] I’m am fortunate that my local system, the San Francisco Public Library, has an excellent digital library. It should given the ridiculously high property taxes residents pay! San Francisco offers Overdrive (131,000 titles), Axis 360 and Hoopla for eBooks and audiobooks. It also has specialized collections like Skillsoft and Safari Online (excellent for computer programming and technical books). Lastly, library patrons can access solid online learning resources like Lynda.com and Team Treehouse.

[2] The latter point is critical since many systems do offer non-resident cards with the catch that you must enroll by visiting a library branch in-person. This is a non-starter for many folks who just want quick and easy enrollment.

The New Orleans Public Library (Louisiana) and the Enoch-Pratt Free Library (Maryland) both offer non-resident cards for $50/year. Since the application process occurs via postal mail and cannot be done completely online, I have omitted both from the above list.

[3] Note that for each book title a library might have any number of copies available to lend to its patrons. So while a library might report 1000 titles, it may, in fact, have 5000 total books in its collection if it has 5 copies per book.