March 16, 2018

OverDrive’s Libby App to Include Remote Library Card Signup

Libby LogoOverDrive will soon launch a feature for its new Libby ebook and audiobook app that will enable new patrons to sign up for a library card using their smartphone or tablet, confirming residency without requiring a visit to a library branch, engineer Michael Haren announced during an August 4 presentation at Digipalooza, the company’s biennial user group meeting in Cleveland, OH.

“We know that many of you have done well with online forms in your libraries, and many of you turn those forms around quickly to get folks cards in a matter of hours or days,” Haren said. “But Steve [Potash, OverDrive President and CEO] gave us a challenge. He said ‘30 seconds. I need to ride up the elevator with a new patron and have a card for them by the time we get to the top.’”

Launched in a pilot test last week at the San Antonio Public Library, TX; Cuyahoga County Public Library, OH; Pioneer Library System, OK; and Toledo Lucas County Public Library, OH, the app confirms a new patron’s residency and eligibility for a library card by checking the mobile phone number used to request the card against a national database of addresses associated with each number.

In a live demo, Haren, who is a resident of Cuyahoga County’s service area, showed the audience how the app begins the signup process requesting a potential new patron’s name and mobile phone number. The system then texts a code to that mobile number to confirm that the owner of the phone is requesting the card. Once the code is submitted, “our service goes out and uses an identity verification tool, just like banks do, to pull back an address,” he explained. “If that address matches the…service area provided by the library, then they give me a card, and I can read [ebooks and other digital content] right now…. Imagine how simple this will be for the millions of people who don’t have library cards.”

By contrast, Haren demonstrated how an attempt to create a Pioneer Library System account using the same mobile number would be immediately declined. Currently, the pilot test system relies exclusively on zip codes to determine service area, but during a Q&A following Haren’s presentation, Potash said that it will be refined to use more granular address data needed for consortia or libraries in which zip codes and service areas overlap or do not align.

The new patron information, including the address, is then automatically added to the library’s OverDrive Library Card Manager authentication system, Haren said, later adding that this data is not retained by OverDrive at the corporate level.

OverDrive Library Card Manager “is the foundation of this service,” he said. “When we add a new patron through [the Libby app], that patron record is available to you to reach out to them. You can send them a letter or you can welcome them with a library card.” The company also plans to integrate the app with major integrated library systems, which could automate that process as well, enabling patrons to check out print books and other materials at local branches.

While the new library card sign-up feature will soon become a standard component of Libby, Potash noted during the Q&A that it is “obviously going to be opt-in” for libraries that prefer not to enable it.

But a sign-up process that doesn’t require new patrons to visit the library for residency confirmation will help libraries attract non-cardholders who have been otherwise difficult to reach, he said. “We believe we can drive hundreds of millions of first time users…to the library. And Libby onboards them pretty quickly, but then they hit a wall: ‘How do I get a card?’”

The pilot was soft launched less than three days prior to the presentation, but Potash said that about 100 new patrons from the combined four library systems had already used the feature to sign up for cards.

“We have a lot to learn, but I’m excited to say that it’s working, and it’s working in a manner that we believe can scale across the country,” Potash said, adding that the company was looking for other libraries and consortia that would be interested in working on the pilot test.

Library card signup wasn’t the only new feature announced for Libby, OverDrive’s e-reader and audiobook app for iOS, Android, and Windows 10. The app debuted in beta test last December featuring simplified sign-in and checkout processes for existing cardholders, and offered patrons the ability to sign in to multiple libraries at once, to consolidate loans and holds on a single shelf, and to sync their reading position and bookmarks across multiple devices.

Other new or recently launched features include filters for searching by availability and by grade level, branch maps with driving directions, patron-facing waitlist details for content that they have on hold (including a progress indicator that estimates how much longer the patron will have to wait, and information regarding the number of extra copies a library has purchased since the patron placed the hold), emoji tags that can be used by patrons to sort and manage their holds and reading histories, the ability to personalize the app’s eponymous mascot by changing her skin-tone, and more.

“Libby is all about sanding down the rough edges of the lending experience,” Haren said.

In a later presentation concluding the conference, Potash reflected on the progress that the library field has made in raising awareness regarding the availability of ebooks and digital audiobooks at public libraries. But, he noted, there is still a vast untapped base of U.S. residents who don’t use libraries or don’t know about all of the content that libraries now offer.

“We’re going to have 200 million circs through OverDrive and our partner libraries this year, and we still haven’t hit main street,” he said. “The stats are there. Half of America does not have a library card, and the majority of users who have library cards have never used [them for checking out] digital media. We are still on this other side of the chasm.”

A decade ago, he said, if you stopped a random sampling of ten people on the street and asked if they had ever downloaded an audiobook or ebook from their library, no one would have known what you were talking about. Even with ebook and digital audiobook circulation numbers increasing significantly since then, awareness is still growing. Simplifying digital transactions via apps like Libby could position libraries for a significant spike in demand and circulation as awareness grows and more patrons seek access, he said.

“We’re at an inflection point,” Potash said. “Libby is the first of many apps that, within a few minutes, finds you your library, gives you your card, and you are borrowing books that you have curated and put right there on your home shelf. We need to be ready.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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  1. David Smolen says:

    I didn’t realize Overdrive gets to decide who gets a library card and how at my library. I thought that was the Library Director’s job in consultation with the Board of Trustees. Ha!

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for commenting. OverDrive CEO Steve Potash explained during a Q&A that the library card feature will be opt-in. If OverDrive customers choose not to enable it, their patrons will still be able to use the new Libby app.


  2. Adri Edwards-Johnson says:


    As the person working on the library-side of the pilot for one of the organizations listed – I can definitely tell you that the libraries still have a say as to who will obtain access to the libraries’ resources.

    It is a fun thing to pilot and to help innovate for libraries. And the nice thing is libraries won’t have to implement it if it doesn’t meet the needs of their service population.

    • David Smolen says:

      Thanks for responding. I don’t think it is a bad idea but the card should be provisional. Perhaps it can expire after 60 days? That would then make the new patron walk through the doors and see all the other great things the library has to offer.

  3. Thievin' Steven McCrook says:

    So if the amount I spend on burner phones is less than the amount I can make by selling materials I check out with my new card and never return, a service like this could be fairly lucrative.

  4. I fear that unless there is a provisional period people will not understand that these are library materials provided/funded by their local library. It will be seen as separate from the whole. “My Library doesn’t need money for ebooks. I get all the free ebooks I need through the Libby app.”

  5. Rick Murphy says:

    Overdrive and Libby have two glaring shortcomings.

    1. They do not remember your preference settings. Every time you use either app to search for a book of your particular interest. If an app can remember what page you are currently on, it could certainly remember your preferences.

    2. In what alternate universe are “Romance” novels considered “Historical Fiction” or “Literature”? Why is this a big deal you ask? Try browsing through 3000 titles of soft-porn looking to find a copy of “Ivanhoe” or “Tale of Two Cities”. In Libby it’s maddening. Using Overdrive it’s impossible.

    I have no issue with the millions of readers who enjoy “Romance” novels. I object to being forced to waste my time wading through thousands of listings in a subject area in which I have absolutely no interest, in the faint hope that I might be enticed at some point in the future of BUYING a copy of a book of a buxom young heroine being passionately embraced by a Fabio look alike from AMAZON.

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