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Majority of borrowed books across Ontario libraries in 2020 weren’t published this year

In a year dominated by a global pandemic and American politics, some might find it fitting that the library book most likely to be checked out across Ontario was a hopeful memoir written by the former first lady of the United States.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming appeared on the top 10 list of most-borrowed books for eight of the 10 library systems CBC News surveyed from across the province.

The memoir also shares one quality with the vast majority of the other books that topped the 2020 lists: It wasn’t published this year. That’s a fact that Wendy Banks, a librarian with the Toronto Public Library, says shows that these lists — like 2020 generally — are not normal.

“It’s a really weird list this year,” she said. “Normally we would have more new and different books populating the list from one year to the next.” 

Toronto list features 4 repeats from last year

Instead, the Toronto list has four repeat top titles from last year: Becoming by Obama, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Normal People by Sally Rooney. Banks says that’s only ever happened with one — decidedly more practical — title before: the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s driver’s handbook.

wendy banks toronto public library
Librarian Wendy Banks says most of the books on the Toronto Public Library’s most-borrowed list this year are from previous years since publishers pushed back new releases because of COVID-19. (Zoom)

Part of the reasoning for the repeats, Banks says, is that most libraries were closed for several months at the beginning of the pandemic, and publishers pushed back many spring releases to the fall and into 2021.

“There just weren’t as many new books around for people to read,” she told CBC News.

That didn’t necessarily mean people borrowed fewer books, but the way some Ontarians borrowed them did change.

Borrowing of e-books, e-audiobooks up

CBC News reached out to Ontario public libraries in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Ottawa, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Windsor, Sudbury and Thunder Bay for this story, and most of them noted a sharp increase in e-book and e-audiobook borrowing this year.

In Toronto, Ottawa, and Kitchener, e-book and e-audiobook borrowing was up more than 30 per cent in 2020.

“A lot of that had to do with the fact that print books just weren’t available,” Banks said. “But another thing I noticed is that, in particular, audiobooks were really popular this year.”

toronto public library top 10 most borrowed books 2020
This year marks the first time the Toronto Public Library’s top 10 most-borrowed books is a tally of print, e-book and e-audiobook checkouts. (Toronto Public Library)

As a result, she decided to tally up audiobook circulation numbers with e-books and print books for the first-time to make Toronto’s top 10 list. A few books made the list based on their e-audiobook popularity alone.

One of those titles was The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, which Banks believes resonated with people in 2020 for obvious reasons — despite being published four years ago.

“People are having trouble focusing, like sitting down and concentrating and reading a whole book cover to cover,” Banks said. “So what a lot of people … were doing was listening to an audiobook while they putter around the house or go for a walk.”

Besides Obama’s Becoming, three other books appear on at least half of the 10 libraries’ most-borrowed lists this year. They include The Guardians by John Grisham, Blue Moon by Lee Child and Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, who was raised in Elmira, Ont., just outside of Kitchener. 

Three Canadian authors on half the top 10 lists

Gladwell is one of three Canadian authors who appear on roughly half of the Ontario lists. The other two are Atwood for The Testaments — her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale — and Louise Penny for her mystery novel A Better Man.

margaret atwood malcolm gladwell louise penny
Canadian authors Margaret Atwood, left, Malcolm Gladwell and Louise Penny each had one of their books on roughly half of the lists from libraries across Ontario. (Evan Mitsui/CBC and Ellis Choe/CBC)

Gladwell’s hometown connection is one of the reasons that Lesa Balch, director of innovation and integration with the Kitchener Public Library, believes Talking to Strangers was the only book to make the library’s top print books and top e-books list this year.

It’s an outlier as the only non-fiction title on Kitchener’s print book list, which consists mostly of popular mystery and thriller novels by such authors as James Patterson and David Baldacci.

The majority of the top 10 lists across Ontario were dominated by those kinds of popular and escapist titles, including the previously mentioned The Guardians and Blue Moon.

“Books that we might call escapist literature are always popular,” Balch said. “And they’ve been even more popular this year.” 

Browse through the most-borrowed book lists provided by the 10 Ontario libraries here: 

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