Using RNIB Overdrive


Recently I wrote about audiobooks, including an overview of the RNIB Overdrive service, where you can download books for free from the RNIB’s Talking Book library. It’s a brilliant service with a huge number of titles to choose from, so it’s well worth checking out if you enjoy reading and listening to audiobooks. And in this post, I’m going to illustrate how we use it in my household, so you get a feel for how it works.

The process of getting a book from Overdrive starts, naturally, by browsing the RNIB Overdrive website. The number of titles and categories available is mind-blowing, covering all areas of fiction and non-fiction, along with a large selection of magazines. So it’s worth browsing through the menus, and typing names of authors and books you like in the search box, to see what comes up. You can browse the library without having an account as well, which will give you a good taste of what’s available.

RNIB Overdrive Site home page. Top row has account, help and search options. Next row has book categories. Following rows show new titles recently added to the library.

It’s generally very easy to find what you’re looking for, though occasionally you may find little inconsistencies, as is perhaps inevitable with such a huge database. For instance, the Wycliffe books are written by W J Burley (with spaces between the initials) – but there is one instance where the author’s name has been written with full stops between the initials instead. So, if you type “W space J space Burley” in the search box, it won’t show that other one. But you will see all of their books if you type in just “Burley”. So it’s just something to be aware of. If the surname is distinctive enough, or if there’s a common word in all the book titles, typing that single word on its own may be sufficient. Or use a character name if, for instance, there’s a particular detective you like, as that will bring up all the books with that name, if it’s mentioned in the title, series name or description.

You can borrow books straight from the index pages by hovering over the cover images and using the buttons that pop up. But if you want to find out more about a book, you simply need to click on its title, which will bring up the description page. Here you’ll find all sorts of detail about the book. It could be arranged a little bit better perhaps, but it gives you all the information you need – title, author, narrator, book description, categories, etc. You can also add books to your wish list, which is your personal equivalent of the list you used to send to the RNIB if you had books from them in the past. Now, though, you can pick any book you like, regardless of whether or not it’s on the list you’ve put together. The wishlist is just there to help you remember particular books that you want.

RNIB Overdrive Site Screenshot - Book Description - A Mind To Murder, Adam Dalgleish Series, by P D James. Includes cover image, text description, audio sample button, subjects, and number of copies available.

If I have one gripe about the description pages, it’s the audio samples. It’s an incredibly useful idea, much like you get on iTunes or Amazon, and the samples are a very generous 2 minutes long. However, each sample starts from the very beginning of the recording, meaning it includes all the RNIB copyright information, the synopsis of the book, and possibly other little things like other books by the same author. And a lot of the time, that information is read by someone different to the main narrator of the book. So by the time it’s done, there’s either very little time, or no time at all, to hear the start of the book read by the actual narrator. So it’s not the sort of sample you might hope for. The copyright information is important and acceptable when you listen to the book in full, sure, but for a sample it would be better if it started from the start of the actual story, to give you a feel for it.

The only other minor thing I’d note is that the book descriptions often don’t have full stops between sentences, so they roll into each other. Not so bad to read visually, as each sentence still begins with a capital – but I imagine it might sound a little odd through speech systems like Voiceover sometimes. Also, the duration of the book is somewhat buried under a drop-down box called Title Information further down the page. It would be better if the information in that box were up the top somewhere.

RNIB Overdrive Site Screenshot - File information for book, with file size, number of parts, duration, release date and digital rights information.

But those gripes are very minor in the grand scheme of things. The fact that you can browse the library and instantly download any book you like is brilliant, far better than waiting days for them to come through in the post. It does work really well. It may also be the case that some of the site design is outside RNIB’s control, given that the RNIB’s library is one of thousands hosted by Overdrive, which is a worldwide company. RNIB have simply signed up to use their services to help distribute their books.

To borrow and manage your books, you need an account of course. The RNIB will give you a username and password – which you can’t change, but then you don’t really need to change it if you set your computer or smartphone to remember it, and keep the RNIB’s email to you just in case.

Once you’re logged in, you can then go into your account settings, which has all sorts of areas to play around with. In particular, the Checkouts area is where you download books that you’ve chosen to borrow, the Wish List shows all the books you’ve added for later, and the Rated Titles list shows all the titles you’ve given a rating for (which you can only do after listening to them). Given that there’s no easy way of knowing if you’ve borrowed a book before, we make sure we give every book a rating after we’ve listened to it, so it’s added to the Rated Titles list. As a result, we can sort that list by author and look to see if we’ve had a particular title before, if we can’t quite remember anytime.

You also have a Settings page, on which you can choose 14 or 21 days as your lending period, which is a good idea. On some devices (but not Macs for some reason), you can return a book before it’s expired, or you can just let it run out. Or, if you haven’t finished listening to it, you’ll get a Renew option for the book a few days before it expires, clicking on which will allow you to borrow it again as soon as the first lending period is up, so you can continue listening. Beyond that, the settings also allow you to change the maturity level of the books and cover images you see, display a High Contrast version of the site if that makes it clearer, or turn on a dyslexic-friendly font for the site (although I didn’t notice any difference at all when I tried it).

RNIB Overdrive Site Screenshot - Account Settings, with options for lending period, maturity level, cover images and high contrast display

As far as downloading books goes, you first need to download the Overdrive app to your computer or mobile device. On the iPhone, this is pretty simple, as you get it from the app store. To set it up, you just open the app, search for the RNIB library and login. Then, when you click to download a book from the website, it will open the link in the app and download the book ready for you to play there and then. I haven’t tried it with Voiceover, but this short video demonstration shows that it seems to work quite well.

Overdrive iPhone App Main Menu Screenshot. Shows library name (Royal National Institute For The Blind) plus options for Bookshelf, Account, Settings, Files, History and Help.

The main way we use audiobooks in my household, though, is that my mother listens to them on her Victor Reader Stream player. It’s a great little device which she loves using, because we’ve been able to store all her previously purchased audiobooks on a couple of 32 gigabyte memory cards, with enough room to spare to add one or two new books from Overdrive at regular intervals.

Victor Reader Stream Audio Player. Front view. Has a numeric keypad in the centre, play, search and sleep buttons at the bottom, and three more buttons at the top for other settings.

She also enjoys listening to the radio on it as well, thanks to the power of the internet. I’ve set up a list of favourite stations on there so it’s easy for her to select the ones she wants to listen to. You just have to be a little bit careful when there are multiple versions of certain stations available – e.g. if you don’t pick the correct instance of BBC’s Radio 5 Live, you’ll find that some content is blocked because it’s not the UK stream. Some sports events can’t be broadcast internationally for rights reasons, so their international streams replace them with a message instead. To make sure I got the right one, I searched the online ooTunes station list on my computer, as that’s the service the player uses to access stations online.

Anyway, back to books. And the process of downloading a book on my Mac is pretty easy. When I click the download button on the website, a small file is instantly saved to my Downloads folder – essentially a link to the book with a license key. I then open the Overdrive app and drag the downloaded file on top of it, at which point it offers to download the entire book. The full download takes a few minutes, but it shows you how far it’s got as it goes along.

RNIB Overdrive App Screenshots - Downloading books. Dialog box asks whether to select all or some parts of the book, then the main screen shows download progress in status bar.

I could listen to the book then and there on my computer if I wanted to. But I need to get it on to the Victor Stream player from there. I can’t plug that device directly into my Mac, as it’s not compatible, so I just take the memory card out of the player and put that in the back of my Mac instead.

Memory card (32 gigabytes) in the card slot on the back of my Mac computer.

I then browse to the Overdrive directory on the computer, and copy the relevant book folder from there to the memory card (the whole book folder, not just the files in it). You might initially assume it has go in the DTB folder for Daisy Books, but no, it has to go in the Other Books folder. That may sound confusing at first, but it does make sense. Although these books started life in the Daisy format, on Overdrive it’s just a regular set of MP3s, without the extra Daisy files that go with them (which you would see if you inserted a Daisy CD into a computer). The MP3 filenames end with Part 01, Part 02, etc, which ensures they play in the right order on the player, but beyond that you can’t skip to a specific chapter or heading. But that’s not a problem if you just listen to the book in order.

As an aside, if you listen via the Overdrive app on your computer or phone, each part is subdivided with Media Markers, but they don’t take you to chapters or headings or anything like that. They simply mark a point every 3 minutes in the audio. So they allow you to jump ahead quickly, which is handy, but chances are each ‘marker’ is in the middle of a word or sentence.

Overdrive App For Mac Screenshot - Playing book. Shows cover art, title, author, narrator, publisher, format, part numbers, media markers within each part, and buttons to play stop, go forward and backwards, bookmark, etc.

Anyway, once the folder has been copied on to the memory card, that’s it. My mother can then start listening to the book on the player. However, Mum has a lot of other books on her player too – books we’ve owned on CDs for ages, that have now been transferred on to the memory card. So, to help Mum out, I rename the new book’s folder so it’s forced to the top of the list. That way, Mum always knows that her latest Overdrive book is the first one in the Other Books list, which saves her digging through the others to try and find it.

To achieve this, I type an underscore at the very beginning of the name, as computers interpret this (and many other characters) as coming before A. I also add the author’s name, to ensure that gets spoken in the menu system as well, before keeping the book title at the end.

Screenshots of Overdrive files. Window 1 shows files downloaded by Overdrive to my computer. Window 2 shows files copied to Victor Stream memory card, in Other Books folder, the book folder having been renamed with a leading underscore to ensure it's top of the list.

Once Mum has finished with a book and is ready for another one, I place the memory card back in my Mac, deleting the book she’s finished with from the memory card – being careful to empty it from the Trash as well, else it won’t free the space up. I also delete it from the Overdrive app (which in turn deletes the files from my computer for me). Then I’m ready to add another book.

The one thing I can’t do from a Mac is return a book early on the website. Not sure why – it was mentioned in the user guide we got I think, so it’s a known limitation – but it’s not a problem we’re bothered about. Mum only listens to one book at a time, and you can borrow up to 6 books at once. So by the time she’s heard her second or third book, the first one will have expired automatically as it is. She’ll never be at a point where she hits the 6 book limit. It’s also good that, in your account settings on the website, you can choose 14 or 21 days as your lending period for all books, in case you have a preference.

So, all in all, we love the Overdrive service. I only use it occasionally myself, as I have more than enough other things to entertain me, but Mum uses it a lot. It opens up a massive, seemingly endless world of books to listen to and explore, and it’s a lot more convenient than the old tapes and CDs that used to be the required method of listening to them. And it’s completely free now, which is amazing considering how much content you get.

So it’s well worth trying out if you’re eligible for the service and enjoy listening to books. Once you get used to how it works, it’s very convenient. And to be clear, this is just my personal opinion – the RNIB haven’t asked me to post about it. I just wanted to write about something that we use regularly and enjoy. So if you’ve got this far, thanks for reading. 🙂

Author: Glen

Vsually impaired, with Aniridia & Nystagmus. I'm a fan of Doctor Who, classic sitcoms, Queen and 60s-80s rock & pop. I like to blog about my experiences as a disabled person, and about the things I enjoy in general.

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