Before I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in May, after working for 14 years at Duke University, I used to borrow books regularly from both the Duke and Durham County libraries.
I still do, although I no longer check out bound books. Instead, I download electronic versions halfway around the world.
I just finished reading Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil’s description of the dangers posed by big data, which I’d seen on the New York Times 100 notable books list for 2016.
I downloaded it for free onto my Kindle Paperwhite using the OverDrive “Digital Library Reserve” system offered by both the Duke and Durham libraries, which I access as a Duke retireee and Durham resident.
More than 2,000 Duke users will check out more than 10,000 books from OverDrive this year, according to Aaron Welborn at Duke University Libraries. Roughly two-thirds will be audiobooks. I mainly check out ebooks since I prefer to use my “headphone time” for podcasts and music.
“We chose to subscribe to OverDrive precisely because we know that our Duke community extends way beyond the campus, and we want all users, no matter how far-flung, to have access to a wide array of e-books,” Deborah Jakubs, the university librarian and vice provost for library affairs, explained to me in an e-mail message.
Working as a community development volunteer in Moldova, in eastern Europe, together with my wife, I certainly qualify as “far-flung.” It’s difficult to find current American books here and I can buy nearly a week’s groceries for what it costs to download one best-seller from Amazon.
The Duke and Durham libraries each allow me to download up to three books at a time, generally for three weeks. Champa and I don’t have a television or a subscription to Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, like some other volunteers. Instead, I usually read in the evening before going to sleep.
“We selected OverDrive to serve Durham residents who prefer to read books electronically or can’t come easily to one of our branches,” Tammy Baggett, director of the Durham County Library, wrote me. “We didn’t have Peace Corps volunteers in mind but it makes our hearts happy to know they are benefitting, too.”
Since I arrived, I’ve read popular current novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Chris Pavone’s The Expats and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, as well as more harrowing tales such as Delicious Foods by James Hannaham and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I’ve enjoyed short stories by Alice Munro, history from Erik Larson, science from Malcolm Gladwell, humor from Kurt Vonnegut, inspiration from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and thrillers from John Grisham, David Baldacci and Gillian Flynn.
I loved Patti Smith’s book about her friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, which led me to borrow a copy of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles from the Peace Corps library here, shortly before he won the Nobel Prize. One of the few other “hard copies” I’ve read was a terrific short-story collection from George Saunders that one of my former academic advisees and favorite Duke students gave me as a farewell present. (Shout out, Katie Fernelius!)
I’m now finishing up Chaos Monkeys, a book about Silicon Valley, and starting soon on Jeffrey Toobin’s book about Patty Hearst.
Separate from the OverDrive system, I downloaded free copies of more than a dozen classics from Project Gutenberg. So far, I’ve only skimmed a few of them. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a treat since the castle that inspired the book is near where I now live. I keep meaning to read the others, especially while I am in Peace Corps, but I return again and again to OverDrive.
I told OverDrive’s David Burleigh about my favorable experience and he said, “Yours is a great example of libraries serving their readers even when they’re traveling or working abroad. We’re happy to play a role and make it easy for you.”
OverDrive also allows me to recommend books for my libraries to add and to reserve books currently checked out. As you can see in the photo above, I’m currently waiting on four books from the Durham library, all of which I’m excited to read.
Of course, Amazon and other online retailers would prefer that I buy books, which I did recently with Bessarabian Nights, a new novel by Stela Brinzeanu about trafficking and other problems in Moldova. It’s not in the OverDrive system and I was happy to give some business to the author, who fondly remembers being taught here by Peace Corps volunteers.
If you want to try OverDrive yourself, their home page lets you check whether your local library participates. I hope it does. For me, an active reader living far from home with a limited budget, it’s been a godsend. (I do, however, miss drinking coffee in Duke’s Perkins Library.)