Free public-library e-books for iOS

Bluefire is a little kludgy, but it's also an amazing way to read books like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" without spending a dime or driving to the library.

For people who love to read but don't have a lot of extra cash to spend on books, nothing beats the public library. (Thanks Ben Franklin!) Even better, in recent years, many libraries have started offering e-books that you can check out for a few weeks, just like the real thing. Unfortunately, despite the plethora of e-book readers in the App Store, you couldn't read these DRM-protected library titles on your iPhone, iPod, or iPad.

Until now, that is. Bluefire Reader supports not only ePub and PDF formats, but also the Adobe DRM used by most libraries. During testing, we checked out Dennis Lehane's "Shutter Island" and Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," both free of charge, both without getting in the car and driving to the library. However, we had to jump through some hoops to make it happen, and the end result wasn't always perfect. Indeed, if you're expecting this process to have Kindle-like simplicity, don't.

For starters, you need a library card and/or an online account with your local library. When we signed into mine, the "ebook" section listed only NetLibrary (which has a pretty weak selection) as a download source. However, we remembered previously downloading audiobooks via OverDrive--a service that also carries e-books.

Sure enough, when we clicked through, we were able to browse and download from OverDrive's much larger e-book selection. (It's where we scored the two aforementioned titles.) Your mileage may vary, but we suspect that's where most libraries will lead you.

OverDrive offers e-books in ePub and PDF formats. Whenever possible, choose the former; reading PDFs on an iPhone or iPod is not pleasant because you're looking at, well, PDFs, not formatted e-book files. You can't adjust the font size or much of anything else. ePubs afford a much, much better reading experience.

Alas, format notwithstanding, the book you want may not be available for checkout. As with print editions in a real library, there are a limited number of licenses to go around. (Likewise, most books "expire" after three weeks, meaning they're no longer readable unless you check them out again.) We were able to place a hold on popular titles like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Help," but without knowing when they would become available.

Before you can actually read any downloaded book, you'll need to install Adobe Digital Editions (available free for Windows and Mac OS). With that step done, you can download your library book--which you'll need to open at least once in Digital Editions before you can transfer it to Bluefire Reader. And to do that, you'll use iTunes' "sideloading" feature. Check out Bluefire's help page for complete instructions.

Whew! Like we said, all this is enough to make one long for the simplicity of a Kindle. But once you learn the ropes, it's actually pretty quick and easy. And, hey, isn't it worth a little effort to score e-books for free?

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