Most borrowed library books. What would yours be?

New York Public Library has published a top ten list of the most borrowed books in its 125-year history. In an article about the list a journalist commented that, surprisingly, the most checked-out book was a “children’s picture book”, and there are two more in the top four.

My take is that the journalist knows little about libraries / readership / children. Young children devour books. Especially picture books. It is not unusual to see parents leaving libraries carrying armfuls – and with just two or three children in tow.

What are their findings?

In the NY library’s top four are three classic children’s picture books: “The Snowy Day”, “The Cat in the Hat”, and “Where the Wild Things Are”. Together they equal 75% of all the top four titles checked-out which is not surprising as all four have individual figures in the 400,000s; the rating for these three books within the top ten is 38.4%. In the top ten there are four picture books and they account for 43.7% of all checkouts so their representation has increased overall. Why is this?

By companion two novels for older readers, “Charlotte’s Web” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, together equal 15.8% of checked-out books; the four listed adult books, “1984”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Fahrenheit 451”, and “How to Win Friends and Influence People” total 40.5%.

Reasons for making it onto the shortlist as explained by the compilers:

Shorter books have a greater turnover

I think a great read has more to do with complexity and layers of meaning. 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird may not have many pages but they sure pack a punch in every one of them. The Great Gatsby is a short novel (and one of my favourites) but it’s a relatively straightforward tale of loss, and love, and loss.

Stephen King writes a gripping narrative and but he’s written so much that there’s a wealth to choose from. I’ve got at least half-a-dozen on my bookshelves waiting to be read!

Then there’s the children’s books. They may be no more than a dozen pages but a child will want to be read to over and over. Even the same story. Once hooked on books they are insatiable.

And Harry Potter? By no stretch of the imagination are they short and they’re definitely not a quick read.

Length of time in print

How to Win Friends and Influence People has never been out of print since 1936 so for sheer staying power it deserves to feature at 8th place. How many would read it today is another matter but in its hey-day it seemed everyone knew of it. By contrast Harry Potter arrived at the library some 62 years later and yet it is in 9th place having been checked-out only 53,500 fewer times. The reason given is that it was “an absolute phenomenon”. More likely is that it appealed to readers of all ages, there were movie spin-offs, and a mass of merchandise hit the shops. You don’t catch many “I’m a people influencer” tee-shirts around.

Being available in different languages

This probably has a lot to do with length of time in print as well as widespread appeal as it wouldn’t be economically viable to have small print runs. For whatever reason the more languages available will result in more being borrowed. The Snowy Day is not only available in other languages it was also one of the earliest children’s books to feature diversity. 

Final thoughts

Initially the figures may not appear to be fantastic bearing in mind that these are totals for New York’s Public Library over a 125-year period, and Dale Carnegie’s bestseller has been on the shelves for 84 years. But my quick calculations indicate that Carnegie has been checked-out 65 times a week (on average over those 80 years) and Harry Potter a staggering 202.
Now that’s phenomenal.

For the foreseeable future there will always be a demand for beautifully illustrated children’s literature, especially picture books for the youngest bibliophiles. With the easy availability of e-books and audio books the statistics from New York serve as a testament to the enduring appeal of the physical book.
Now that’s heartening.


Instead of the usual ‘Take-away’ at the end of an article, here’s a ‘Give-away’ –
a fun tote in a lightweight cotton ‘bookworm print’ fabric, large enough to carry your favourite book and magazine. It’s fully lined and has internal pockets for a small notebook, lots of pens, and a phone.

Please add your ‘top three’ titles and the reason you need a new book bag to the Comments below. I’ll post the bag to the person who has the most convincing argument.
NB I’m sorry, but for anyone outside British mainland I’ll need to apply a postage charge.

Bookworm Tote, showing inside pockets
Close-up of bookworm fabric

The Top Ten – for those who like to see the figures

  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, 1962 – 485,583 checkouts
  • The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss, 1957 – 469,650 checkouts
  • 1984 by George Orwell, 1949 – 441,770 checkouts
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, 1963 – 436,016 checkouts
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960 – 422,912 checkouts
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, 1952 – 337,948 checkouts
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1953 – 316,404 checkouts
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, 1936 – 284,524 checkouts
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, 1998 – 231,022 checkouts
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, 1969 – 189,550 checkouts

I hope you have enjoyed the news from New York Public Library.
Thank you for reading and I hope to read your top titles soon.