New York City’s Three Public Library Systems Announce Top Checkouts of 2020

New Yorkers’ Most Borrowed Books Reflect The Unprecedented Challenges They Faced This Year

In a year that brought profound change, New Yorkers relied on books offering perspective, comfort, and hope, according to the top checkouts of 2020, released today by the City’s three library systems.

Brooklyn Public Library, The New York Public Library (which serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island), and Queens Public Library have each released their top 10 checkouts of 2020, and the City’s most borrowed books reflect the historic challenges that have impacted New Yorkers during 2020, including a global pandemic, unprecedented isolation, issues of social justice, and a country divided. 

The top checkout in Brooklyn was How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. The top title in The New York Public Library system was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. The most borrowed book in Queens was The Guardians by John Grisham. Well-loved titles Becoming by Michelle Obama, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and Educated by Tara Westover were popular selections by patrons from across the City and appeared on all three lists.

The top titles were primarily borrowed digitally, as physical library branches were temporarily closed from March to July to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. All three systems invested in strengthening e-book offerings to continue serving New Yorkers during this difficult chapter.

The New York Public Library system, for example, saw over 100,000 first-time users of its e-reader SimplyE from March 16 (the date it temporarily closed) through November. 

In addition to investing in actual copies of e-books, the library systems offered reading recommendation lists, virtual public programs, and other offerings to support New Yorkers throughout the year that impacted the list. For example:

  • Several books on all three lists were featured on The New York Public Library’s Black Liberation Reading List, curated by its Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem with the goal of celebrating and fostering a better understanding of the Black experience. 
  • The New York Public Library’s top title and several others on the list–The Vanishing Half, The Glass Hotel, and The Nickel Boys (also on the Black Liberation Reading List) — were part of its virtual book club with WNYC, which brought New Yorkers “together” around reading even during a period of unprecedented isolation. 
  • Brooklyn Public Library’s Justice Initiative Book ClubKnow Your Rights workshops and 28th Amendment Project generated reading and conversation in every part of the borough about reckoning with the past and creating a more just and equitable future.
  • BPL’s BookMatch Service, now in its sixth year, provides personalized, completely custom and algorithm-free book lists for individual patrons, as well as suggested reading lists on current topics, including race relationsviruses, germs and pandemicsvoting rights, and even a list for quarantining.
  • QPL this year introduced a new app that allows users to not only sign up for e-cards, and hold, reserve, and renew materials, but also read, listen to, and watch content without leaving the app, and driving more people to its e-collection.

Going into 2021, New Yorkers can get library cards virtually via the websites for Brooklyn Public Library (bklynlibrary.org), The New York Public Library (nypl.org), and Queens Public Library (queenslibrary.org). Each system offers reading recommendations to give New Yorkers an idea for where to start, such as The New York Public Library’s Best Books of 2020 for adults, kids, and teens

Throughout 2020, the three library systems suspended late fines for books; the systems have decided to extend fine-free borrowing through at least June 2021.

The top checkouts in 2020 for each system (including e-book checkouts as well as physical checkouts when branches began to reopen in July for grab-and-go service) are:  

Brooklyn Public Library:

  1. How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  2. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo 
  3. Normal People: A Novel by Sally Rooney
  4. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  5. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  6. Educated by Tara Westover
  7. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
  8. The Nickel Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead
  9. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
  10. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The New York Public Library (which includes the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island):

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 
  2. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  3. The Glass Hotel: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel
  4. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  5. The Dutch House: A Novel by Ann Patchett
  6. The Nickel Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead
  7. Educated by Tara Westover
  8. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  9. Normal People: A Novel by Sally Rooney
  10. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

Queens Public Library: 

  1. The Guardians by John Grisham
  2. Moral Compass by Danielle Steel
  3. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  4. Lost by James Patterson and James O. Born
  5. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  6. A Minute to Midnight by David Baldacci
  7. Educated by Tara Westover
  8. Criss Cross by James Patterson
  9. Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng
  10. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

“New Yorkers always read for a multitude of different reasons. This year, with their City in crisis, it’s clear based on the top checkouts that they leaned on books in a variety of ways to get them through our City’s most difficult chapter in recent memory,” said Lynn Lobash, NYPL’s Assistant Director of Read Services. “Some longed for an escape through great literature or inspiring memoirs. Others wanted to become more informed about current events, particularly issues around social justice that sparked global protests and heated discussion. Still others wanted to read alongside thousands of fellow New Yorkers to feel a connection, a sense of togetherness while we were apart. Books and stories are so powerful, and this year, we hope the most borrowed titles made a positive impact on a City coping with so much.”

In addition to the most borrowed books overall, The New York Public Library system also released the top titles in a number of genres, including the top checkout for kids, teens, and Spanish-language books:

  • Children: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (also the top children’s title at the Queens and Brooklyn Public Libraries in 2020, and featured on NYPL’s Top Checkouts of All Time list, released in January to mark the system’s 125th anniversary)
  • Teens: American Royals by Katharine McGee
  • Classics: 1984 by George Orwell
  • Comics and Graphic Novels: The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic novel) by Margaret Atwood
  • Sci-Fi/Fantasy: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Horror: If it Bleeds by Stephen King
  • Mystery and Detective: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel 
  • Romance: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
  • Spanish Language: Tierra Americana (American Dirt) by Jeanine Cummins

The number one teen title on QPL’s list is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.

“2020 was a year of devastation but also transformation, which is reflected in the books we reached for,” said Linda E. Johnson, President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library. “Our top titles reflect a city seeking to uproot the long legacies of racism and sexism, to understand how we arrived here and how we might imagine a more equitable future. They reflect a city that has fought to sustain its sense of community despite the distance.”

“This year’s top checkouts document what NYPL patrons were reading during a historic period with unprecedented difficulties and tremendous anxiety and uncertainty,” said Anthony W. Marx, president of The New York Public Library. “While the top titles are as diverse as the communities we serve, I am inspired to see that, in a year when basic facts were sometimes questioned, so many turned to libraries, trusted sources of knowledge, to enhance their understanding of current events and the social justice issues that continue to plague our nation. That is so important. NYPL will continue to offer New Yorkers whatever we can to cope with our current circumstances, and will work to be a key part of the City’s recovery. Together, we will turn the page.”

“Our list suggests that readers in Queens, the epicenter of the pandemic when it first came to New York City, needed comfort and escape during one of the bleakest periods our communities have ever experienced,” said Dennis M. Walcott, president of Queens Public Library.  “People turned to popular titles and authors to keep them connected to the familiar while struggling with so many unknowns.” 

About Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library is one of the nation’s largest library systems and among New York City’s most democratic institutions. As a leader in developing modern 21st century libraries, we provide resources to support personal advancement, foster civic literacy, and strengthen the fabric of community among the more than 2.6 million individuals who call Brooklyn home. We provide nearly 65,000 free programs a year with writers, thinkers, artists, and educators—from around the corner and around the world. And we give patrons millions of opportunities to enjoy one of life’s greatest satisfactions: the joy of a good book.

About The New York Public Library

For 125 years, The New York Public Library has been a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library receives approximately 16 million visits through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at www.nypl.org. To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at nypl.org/support.

About Queens Public Library

Queens Public Library is one of the largest and busiest public library systems in the United States, dedicated to serving the most ethnically and culturally diverse area in the country. An independent, non-profit organization founded in 1896, Queens Public Library offers free access to a collection of more than 5 million books and other materials in multiple languages, technology and digital resources, and more than 80,000 educational, cultural, and civic programs annually. QPL consists of 66 locations across the borough, including branch libraries, a Central Library, seven adult learning centers, a technology center, one universal pre-kindergarten, and two teen centers that attracted more than 11 million visitors in 2019. 

Photos by Jonathan Blanc  / NYPL