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Reading Comic Books With The Libby Library App

Nowadays, instead of purchasing a lot of comic books, I read a lot of my comic books via the various libraries I have access to (see my post on borrowing more than 1000 collections and original graphic novels). Therefore, it was a significant shift when the pandemic closed the libraries and I had to go digital.

As a member of several London libraries, I had to use RBdigital, the app of choice for most of the London libraries for ebooks. I wrote about using RBdigital, in which I talked predominantly about the selection of comic books on offer – I didn’t end up using RBdigital for reading comic books very much because, although more than 1500 collections of various comic books were available, the selection was rather poor. There were many collections aimed at children, a lot of franchise stuff, a relatively good selection of Marvel comics, albeit a few years behind the times, and absolutely no DC Comics whatsoever. Instead, I ended up using the app for magazines and ‘proper’ books.

Since that post, for reasons that I have been unable to discern, all London libraries switched over to the Libby app (part of Overdrive) to provide ebooks and audiobooks to their members, starting in March 2021, in a staggered approach across different libraries (I’m a member of six libraries from different London boroughs, so I was witness to the libraries introducing the app and the switchover during the course of several months). This post will be the corresponding overview of the Libby comic book offering as my post on RBdigital.

The Libby app is well-suited for reading comic books on your tablet – when you’ve selected something, it’s easy and quick to open it up and start reading, with smooth page transitions, the ability to bookmark, and an overall good reading experience. It wasn’t always that way – the Libby app was significantly different (and worse) when it first became the London libraries app, missing several features that were part of RBdigital that made the user experience much smoother. Fortunately, the people behind Libby have clearly been upgrading and listening to suggestions, which is good for all of us.

One feature that could still do with improvement is searching. We’ve been spoiled by Google (other search engines are available) when it comes to searching, so it’s frustrating that the Libby app search function isn’t as good as it can be. Part of it is the Search Suggestion feature, which lists the name of the book as a series, but then the book is not found in the actual results. How does that work? Surely having the title as a series indicates that it should be present in the catalogue? Why does it come up if it’s not there?

The other problem is that not everything has been catalogued correctly. For example, if you look up Donny Cates to see which books are in the library, it doesn’t return all volumes of Redneck because the fifth volume does not have an author listed; when doing a search, the Search Suggestion comes up with ‘Author’ next to the name (books come up with ‘Series’), so you think it would have them all correctly labelled. Not so: searching for Jonathan Hickman books does not return all East of West volumes because the author of vol 10 is ‘Collected’ (a regular occurrence, unfortunately).

Another irritating quirk is that if you close your tablet in the middle of reading a book, come back and finish the book and want to return it, the app tells you that you are not online so can’t complete the task, despite the fact that you could only read the book because you have internet. This happens with other things (search for a book then try to borrow it only to be told that you are offline, all evidence to the contrary). It’s only a niggle but it’s a confusing one.

The most interesting aspect and most important when it comes to reading comic books via Libby is the library card you use. The difference is startling, and it comes down to money (as so many things do).

My local library is part of The Libraries Consortium, which must have the most basic collection of comic books available, and I’d be fascinated to see how these deals are organised behind the scenes. Marvel books make up the bulk of the big publishers: 338 books in total (when searching for a title, the page for an individual book offers the option to search for other books by the same authors but also the same publishers). There is a wide selection as for RBdigital, a mix of old and new, although nothing more recent than approximately 5 years ago.

The real shocker is how few books are available from the other publishers. Image Comics has 38 books, which comprise 29 volumes of The Walking Dead, the first six volumes of Saga, Paper Girls vols 3 and 4, and for some reason Spawn vol 2 from 1992 (why?). Dark Horse Comics has 39 books, which are an even odder selection: some Minecraft, some Tomb Raider, four volumes of The Witcher, Avatar: The Promise, three volumes of Angel Catbird, 300, Sin City vol 1, five volumes of Roy Thomas’ Chronicles of Conan, two Dark Horse/DC collections, Murder Mysteries, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales, Spike: Into the Light, and the first two volumes of BPRD (but no Hellboy). These are not what I would call good representations of what these publishers have to offer.

Screenshot of the results of the comic book searches with the Libby app on an Android tablet

And then there is DC Comics, a company that seems to hate the UK digitally when it comes to comic books: DC Universe Infinite is still unavailable in the UK, RBdigital had no DC comics, and the selection available in The Libraries Consortium is woeful. You can read 39 DC Comics books and 12 Vertigo books: Watchmen, all volumes of The Sandman, Death, V for Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths – some big names for a decent start – but then the selection is erratic and doesn’t have anything published since 2013, mainly from the Nu DCU stuff. There are Batman vols 1 and 2 by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, Action Comics vols 1 and 2 by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales, Superman vol 1 by George Pérez, Batman/Superman vols 1–3 by Greg Pak and Jae Lee, Batgirl vol 1 by Gail Simone, Wonder Woman vol 1 by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, Gotham Academy vols 1 and 2, Superman Unchained, Superman Earth One, Teen Titans vol 1, five volumes of Teen Titans Go!, the Before Watchmen collections, five volumes of Harley Quinn, plus Blackest Night, Batman: Knightfall vol 1, The Death of Superman and Batman: Hush.

This is insulting. I mean, I’m not asking for all their books to be in the library, but this is ridiculous – how are people going to get into the comic books if they don’t have the chance to read some stuff for free? Something published this decade? And such a limited range – it doesn’t make any sense.

To add insult to injury, it appears that The Libraries Consortium has only a single copy of each book available to loan. I’m not sure how these things work, but a digital copy of a book should be able to provide more than one copy to borrow. I point this out specifically because of the difference when I talk about using the Libby app with other libraries.

I am a member of libraries in the centre of London because the medical communications and healthcare advertising agencies I’ve worked for have been based there. Specifically, the City of London library and Lambeth libraries (although it appears that these two have the same deal in place for the digital collections), two places that have money, which means that all the comic books available have unlimited copies available. It’s been an absolute joy and the reason I haven’t written about Libby before is because I’ve been too busy reading collections.

The other wonderful thing is the collections themselves: more than 2,800 volumes of comic books/original graphic novels, which includes books published last year. EXCEPT FOR DC COMICS: there are no DC Comics books available at all – I like to think that the City and Lambeth libraries were insulted by the selection that DC offered to them and didn’t bother even with the paltry choice available, but that is wild speculation on my part. They more than make up for it with the other major publishers.

Dark Horse Comics gets off to a cracking start with 470 books; it’s not a perfect selection of their titles but it’s decent. Various omnibus editions of Hellboy, volumes of BPRD, Usagi Yojimbo Sagas, Umbrella Academy, a large selection of English-translation manga and their franchise stuff. They also include a selection of very interesting offerings: Heart in a Box by Kelly Thompson and Meredith McClarten, Steeple by John Allinson, Invisible Kingdom, LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor, the collected Dork (and strangely only the second volume of Blackwood, also by Evan Dorkin). It’s been a delight to be able to read these books.

Marvel Comics provide a whopping 944 books, another good selection of books across the board, representing their diverse offering, and including recent books that I read on Marvel Unlimited last year, such as some King in Black mini-series, US Agent by Priest, Power Pack by Ryan North, Marvel Snapshots by Kurt Busiek. I haven’t looked into the selection as much because I was using the Marvel Unlimited app until the end of last year, so I was able to read everything I wanted there, but I could see at a glance that it was a good selection. Interestingly, the publisher is named as ‘Marvel Worldwide, Inc.’, compared with ‘Marvel Comics’ on The Libraries Consortium.

However, the real delight is the selection for Image Comics: 1,275 books available (although, for some strange reason, 1,299 available at Lambeth libraries: City Library has Reckless: Destroy All Monsters, but Lambeth has all three Reckless books, which are as phenomenal as you’d expect from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips firing on all cylinders). So, in comparison, all volumes of Saga, Paper Girls, The Walking Dead, Invincible, but then a wonderfully diverse range of titles, including books from last year, such as Radiant Black vol 1, Time Before Time vol 1, Nocterra vol 1.

It’s not a perfect representation and some later volumes are missing, but it is very impressive, and I’ve had my desire for a diverse selection of interesting creator-owned comic books sated over the previous months: Farmhand, Redneck, Outer Darkness, Pulp, Assassin Nation, Airboy, Adventureman, Bitter Root, Prince of Cats, Sexcastle, Ghost Fleet omnibus, Sea of Stars, Lady Killer, Man-Eaters, Curse Words are some of the titles available and which have been consumed voraciously by me.

In summary: the Libby app is great for reading comic books, especially if you’re the member of a library with money, except if you want to read DC Comics books.

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