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Public libraries reveal their most borrowed books of 2023

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At the end of every year, public libraries around the country assemble lists of the books most borrowed by readers. From Charleston, S.C. to Cincinnati, Ohio, from New Orleans, La. to Minnetonka, Minn., readers favored buzzy memoirs and novels adapted into TV miniseries.

"We had Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus as our number one checkout," says Emily Pullen. She manages reader services at the New York Public Library, the country's largest public library system, at least in terms of holdings, visitors and circulation.

You can see its most borrowed list here, which includes multiple titles by Colleen Hoover and Emily Henry.

/ Doubleday

Lessons in Chemistry, a bestseller last year, is set in the early 1960s. It's about a chemist dismissed because of her gender, who ends up hosting a popular cooking show. The novel was adapted this year into a series on Apple TV+.

Screen adaptations often drive popular novels; Lessons in Chemistry was also the most borrowed book at public libraries in Seattle, Wash., Boston, Mass., and Cleveland, Ohio.

But it was not even on the top 10 at the public library in Topeka, Kan. There, readers preferred mysteries and thrillers by C.J. Box, John Grisham and David Baldacci.

Not every U.S. library tracks its most borrowed books. And there's no one big list from, say, the American Library Association. "Most borrowed" lists can be sliced into lots of different categories: fiction, nonfiction, young adult, and books for children. Then there's audio and electronic books, as well as the physical ones.

On the app Libby, the number one most borrowed e-book nationally in 2023 was the memoir Spare, by Prince Harry Duke of Sussex. It was also the number one e-book at the Indianapolis Public Library.

/ Random House
Random House

"What surprised me really was the amount of checkouts in e-format compared to physical format," says Deb Lambert, who works at the Indianapolis library as director of collection management. "To see the stark numbers now, it's really drastic. It's like 5 to 1 e-checkouts to physical checkouts. And it looks like we might be heading even more towards 'e' than physical."

Spare also topped Libby's audiobook checkouts in nonfiction; Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros led in fiction.

The dramatic rise of library users reading electronically is not just limited to books, Lambert adds. Public librarians never used to know how exactly many people perused magazines in the reading rooms. Now thanks to e-magazines, they know down to the last reader, how incredibly popular The New Yorker is in Indianapolis.

"Our New Yorker e-magazine was actually the most checked out title of everything online, by a pretty good amount," Lambert says. In 2023, she adds, the magazine was bigger than Spare, even bigger than Lessons in Chemistry.

"Lessons in Chemistry had a total of 6,300 checkouts, and New Yorker magazine was 6,800 checkouts. It is interesting."

E-books and magazines have created a new set of challenges for public libraries when it comes to allocating budgets, but these librarians say they welcome new ways to assist people reading. No matter the genre or the format, they believe reading is for everyone.

If you are looking for your next book to check out, head over to Books We Love. Our site has more than 3,600 recommended titles, stretching back 11 years — along with links to help you find the books at your local libraries!

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.