As a technical matter, it's remarkably easy to borrow an e-book from your local library. But not if you want to take out the best-selling biography of Steven P. Jobs, the hero of the Internet age who helped lure tens of millions of people to personal computers, tablets and other digital devices.
The publisher of the Jobs biography, Simon & Schuster, does not sell digital books to libraries. Five of the six major publishers of trade books either refuse to make new e-books available to libraries or have pulled back significantly over the last year on how easily or how often those books can be circulated. And complaints are rampant about lengthy waiting lists for best sellers and other popular e-books from the publishers that are willing to sell to libraries.
Want to borrow "The Help," the novel by Kathryn Stockett? On New Jersey's state e-book consortium, 375 people were waiting for a copy recently. At the New York Public Library's Web site, 193 members had put a hold on a digital edition of Stieg Larsson's trilogy, which begins with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
How about the immensely popular novel "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E. L. James? Thirty-three people were waiting for the e-book on the Seattle Public Library's site.
"We hear a lot of frustration," said Christopher Platt, the director of collections and circulation operations at the New York Public Library. "It's rational. We don't expect our readers to understand the complexities of the publishing industry."
These complexities may only increase with the announcement on Wednesday that the Justice Department had filed a civil antitrust action against major book publishers and Apple, accusing the companies of colluding in 2010 to raise the prices of e-books. In the meantime, though, if you can find the e-book you want in the library, it's easy to check it out. You can browse a library's digital holdings from the comfort of your living room at any time. You don't have to go to the library to borrow a book, and even better, you don't have to go there to return it. Books vanish from your device when they are due. And you can get access to a library's e-books from myriad devices, including e-readers, tablets and smartphones.
You do have to learn one of the two basic systems. One is for Amazon's Kindle, which works directly through Amazon.com and is the easier of the two. The other requires you to download software from the Adobe Web site, and works for other e-readers. Some people find the software unwieldy, as well as difficult to download initially, librarians say. But it is manageable.
It is possible to download e-books from a library directly to some e-readers via Wi-Fi. For others, digital books must first be downloaded to a computer and then to an e-reader via a USB cable.
Here are some guidelines on how to borrow books for the most popular devices: Amazon's Kindle, which was made available for library books last September; Barnes & Noble's Nook; the Sony and Kobo e-readers; and tablets, laptops, PCs and smartphones.
AMAZON KINDLE If you don't already have an Amazon account, you must create one on the Web site. Then go to your library's Web site and find the e-book listings. When you select an e-book to borrow, choose the Kindle format of the book. Click to check out. Select "get for Kindle," which will redirect you to the public library loan page on Amazon.com. From the "deliver to" menu, select "your Kindle." Choose "get library book," and it will be sent via Wi-Fi to your e-reader. (Caution: Some publishers require that certain e-books be transferred with a cable from a PC to a Kindle, even if Wi-Fi is available.)
NOOK, SONY AND KOBO On a Web browser, search for Adobe Digital Editions on Adobe's Web site. Once on the site, click on the "download now" link to get the software that works with these readers. Click "launch" to begin the installation; when you see the setup assistant, click "continue."
Click on the link for an Adobe ID online. A new browser will open; click on "create an Adobe account" and fill in the required information. Once your account is created, close the browser and return to Adobe Digital Editions. Enter your new Adobe ID and password and click to activate the software.
A new screen will appear for Adobe Digital Editions. Connect your Nook or other e-reader to your computer via USB cable. A screen will say "device setup assistant." Click "authorize device." A message will confirm the device has been authorized. Click "finished."
You are now ready to go to the e-books section of your library's Web site. You must select the EPUB format of a book, which uses the Adobe software; a cable is required to transfer an e-book from your computer to your e-reader.
IPAD Apple's iPads and many other tablets and smartphones have apps for both the Kindle's e-book software and for the Adobe Digital Editions software used by the Nook.
The vast majority of libraries use a software system called Overdrive to host their e-book collections. Browsing on most of these sites is similar to shopping on an online retailer's site, and checking out a library's e-book is also similar. Remember to select the appropriate format -- Kindle or EPUB for Adobe Digital Editions -- before adding a book to your cart.
Libraries are permitted to lend each digital book only one at a time, under licensing agreements, which is a prime reason for the long waiting lists on highly popular e-books.
The relative ease with which digitized books can be borrowed has left many publishers fearful of declining sales and the potential for piracy. Macmillan and Hachette, as well as Simon & Schuster, refuse to sell e-books to libraries.
Last year, the Penguin Book Group said it would no longer make new e-books available, and HarperCollins set new restrictions, saying its e-books may be checked out from libraries only 26 times, after which they expire.
While the publishers may be wary, consumers have taken to e-readers and tablets with astonishing enthusiasm.
Three years ago, 2 percent of American adults owned an e-reader, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and only a few had a tablet. By January, in the latest Pew survey, 28 percent of adults said they owned an e-reader or a tablet, or both.
Libraries have been scrambling to catch up. Many have significantly expanded their budgets for e-books, buying from independent publishers and smaller houses.
Circulation has taken off. In Seattle, 512,000 e-books were borrowed last year, compared with 213,000 in 2010. The Seattle Public Library now has about 100,000 digitized books, although that is only a small fraction of its 2.3 million print holdings. In December and January, e-book circulation in the Chicago Public Library increased by 230 percent over the same months a year earlier.
Growth has been equally rapid at the New York Public Library, which has about 88,000 digitized books and audio books, nearly double the amount from a year ago, Mr. Platt said. In the 12 months ending in February, members borrowed more than 646,000 e-books, more than double the number in the previous year.
Many libraries offer classes to teach people how to use e-readers and how to set up the software to borrow digital books. Libraries in Rockford, Ill., and in Ridgewood, N.J., among others, are beginning to lend e-readers to members.
Still, libraries are straining to respond to the vast surge in demand despite publishers' restrictions and their own stretched acquisition budgets. "They know they're in this highly volatile time," Molly Raphael, the president of the American Library Association, said of the local libraries. "Publishers are trying to figure things out and libraries are trying to figure things out."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.