The National Emergency Library is a Good Thing, Even With All Its Technical Flaws

A Quick Tech Guide to Getting Your Free Ebook Loans

The National Emergency Library (NEL), made available by the Internet Archive, is providing a worldwide service during the COVID-19 pandemic (yes, anyone on the planet can sign up). Libraries across the nation have shuttered, but now through June you have at your fingertips a massive free digital library. There are over 1.3 million book selections. Good luck picking your ten. In addition to a wide selection of books, there are no waitlists for a digital copy. That’s the big selling point.

The NEL isn’t without controversy. Publishers and some authors say it’s piracy since the books aren’t licensed. Yet they don’t acknowledge that NEL places limits on book checkouts (10 at a time for 14 days per book) and the digital files are locked down completely, to the point downloads are only possible through Adobe’s Digital Editions app (a double-edged sword, which I’ll get to).


Ebook loans without a wait list are available during the pandemic at the National Emergency Library.

Ebook loans without a wait list are available during the pandemic at the National Emergency Library.


Publishers simply want their money. Are they wrong? Maybe not, but they don’t have much of an argument from where I stand. Two big reasons: First, people who do choose to buy ebooks don’t actually own them, but rather only have limited licenses to ebooks. That fact is buried in Terms of Service agreements and makes me even less inclined to buy ebooks.

Second, I can get most of the books I want at my library, so this is a legitimate alternative to help me and my kids (if they can get off Netflix) read during this period. Before the pandemic, I was three books shy of figuring out if the Baudelaire orphans could really defeat Count Olaf in the 13-book series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Now I can tear through these books in short order. I’m not paying $30 when I could normally get them at my library.

But this article is not about all the money grubbing and finger pointing. It’s about the technical part of getting your free ebook loans, which is a bit frustrating. I’m fairly tech savvy, and it still took me four days of sporadic testing to figure this thing out. So now, in short order, here’s how I navigated this arcane process to book bliss.

Reading in the Web Browser (a.k.a. The path of least resistance):

  • Go to and sign up for a free account. Click on the book icon. Search for a book. Read in your web browser. Done.
  • If you don’t want to carry around your laptop to read, you can read on a mobile web browser, but you’ll strain your eye-sight squinting at the baby-sized font. (The book pages are scanned images, not actual text, so they don’t resize well.)
  • Brush up on your search query skills when book hunting. There are a ton of results. Get specific. For example, if you’re looking for a book in a series, put in the exact title of the entry to find it rather than the series’ name.
  • Good luck getting your kids to read in the web browser. They might laugh at you.

Reading an ebook offline:

  • Download the Adobe Digital Editions app to your device. Unfortunately, you have no other choice.
  • Connect to your Adobe account or create one.
  • Look in the book description for download links to the ePub and PDF files.
  • Download the ePub version (HIGHLY recommended).
  • Open in Adobe Digital Editions. You’ll be prompted to login to your Adobe account if you aren’t already in order to authenticate the device you’re reading on.


  • If you’re reading on a laptop (really?) using Adobe Digital Editions, either file type will work. But sometimes two thumbnails of the book appear randomly. The interface is bare bones too. I didn’t do much here because I’m not reading on my laptop…



Adobe Digital Editions is its own kind of horror story, one you can’t even avoid if you want to download ebooks from the National Emergency Library.


  • The only way you’re going to even have a remotely painless ebook experience on mobile – from download to reading – is the following route.
  • On a mobile browser, login to your Internet Archive account, borrow your book and download the ePub file. (The PDF of the “scanned book” will cause you to pull your hair out. I warn you – the file is big, pages bleed off-screen, it doesn’t work half the time if downloading on desktop and syncing to mobile, and it won’t work at all if trying to download directly on mobile.)
  • On my iPhone, the download prompt asked me which app I wanted to open the file in. Open in Adobe Digital Editions, which I can now officially say is the most jarringly bad ebook app experience on mobile (an indie developer could do better). The download with start automatically.
  • If the device isn’t already authenticated with Adobe credentials, you can do that in the settings.
  • Don’t let your mobile screen go to sleep during download, and don’t check your texts or other apps. The download will stop every time if you navigate away from the screen.
  • Downloads on LTE sometimes took a minute, sometimes upwards of 20 minutes. These are small ePub files so it’s a problem I would suspect with the software.
  • There’s a standard disclaimer that the ePub files have errors, so I first went with the PDF, which turned out to be a far inferior and more frustrating file to even download and get working. I swapped back to the ePub with ‘errors’ after wrestling endlessly with the PDF.


  • It’s passable, but not pretty.
  • The ePub book text is pulled from scanned pages, so there are lots of weird characters (a.k.a. ‘errors’) that are obvious, but not deal breakers.
  • If you choose to do the PDF “scanned book”, the font is an eye-strainer, and when trying to download on mobile to read, I couldn’t. I had to do it on a laptop first and sync to mobile. So, that’s not an option anymore in my book (pun!)
  • You’ll probably want to increase the text size with the touchscreen pinch-and-zoom gesture. If zooming pushes text off the screen, rotate the screen to landscape and rotate back to normal to fix (on iPhone at least).
  • The controls are not consistent from ePub to PDF. I recommend only ePub on mobile, but if you have both files, the screen options for the book change depending on the file type. Really poor experience that keeps you guessing.
  • Of the basic screen options (you can count them on one hand), highlighting and notes exist, but you can’t download them from the mobile app. So what’s the point?
  • Actually trying to highlight often advances the page instead. Or it highlights huge blocks of text you don’t want and modifying the highlight is frustrating. Saying the function is worthless is not too harsh.
  • Don’t try to advance the pages while the screen is loading; you’ll jump several pages ahead.

Learning about all these issues was a four-day trial. The NEL is a service that I hope continues, but the technology that it uses for mobile downloads and reading is below even basic standards for mobile ebook readers. The majority of these issues are Adobe’s to solve. If users are forced into Adobe Digital Editions, it needs to simply work. The company’s ebook app is far from intuitive or easy, surprising for a company that pours millions or more into development for its Creative Cloud apps. Consumers also need more obvious prompts that make it clear ePub files are what should be used for small screens.

Without more guidance, readers likely will suffer a lot of heartache through the summer, if they even attempt to struggle through downloading and reading on a mobile screen using Adobe’s app. The Amazon “Buy Now with 1-Click” Button never looked so enticing. But remember, that’s a deception too, since you’re only licensing ebooks.

I hope the NEL can reach its full potential. The books are there (at least until authors request their work be pulled), but the technology is not. As the Baudelaire orphans might say, maybe Abode is the real VFD, Very Fickle Developers. That might make for a good entry in that series. Now back to fighting Count Olaf instead of bad technology.

Happy reading through these hard times!



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