Editor's note: A shortened version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Portland Monthly
Ah, Portland—city of readers in rose-colored glasses, where our biggest tourist attraction is a bookstore and our library system regularly ranks as one of the nation’s busiest, outpacing much larger metropolises.
In our pandemic-induced confinement, it turns out that readers from around the city have been turning to the library in droves—not the physical branches, obviously, but the digital circulation system's vast library of e-books and audiobooks, which can be accessed with the click of a button.
Demand has spiked since the libraries closed down on March 13, says electronic content librarian Kady Ferris, with more than 232,000 checkouts in the last three months than the same period in 2019. There’s been a particular boom in toddler and kids’ books, she says. (Will preschoolers agree to go back to the dead-tree versions of Pete the Cat and Llama, Llama, Red Pajama when this is all over, or is there no turning back? Who can say?)
The rapid growth has been aided by the system’s first-ever experiment with allowing virtual library cards, which went live on March 21 and can get you from sign-up to checking out e-books, streaming media, and audiobooks in roughly two minutes flat. Bowing to inevitable realities, publishers have also discounted the prices libraries pay for e-books, a sweet victory for librarians, who’ve been battling the publishing industry’s attempts to rein in e-book lending for months.
So, what are we reading? Prepare to be mesmerized by this real-time website from Overdrive, the content management system that anonymously tracks what your fellow citizens are checking out (and placing holds on). There’s something both inspiring and voyeuristic in watching the books flash by—there goes A Light in the Attic by iconoclastic poet Shel Silverstein! Margaret Atwood’s latest is clearly big, everyone wants books about plants, and Harry Potter is still, after all these years, everywhere.
Yes, about the boy wizard. Thanks to benevolent overlord J. K. Rowling and the folks at Pottermore, the umbrella organization for the ever-expanding Potter Literary/Theatrical/Cinematic Universe, the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was made available for download or audio-listening free on demand for the whole month of April.
That decision helps explain why the book was no. 1 on the library’s list of most-checked-out e-books and audiobooks since March 13, with 2,435 checkouts.
“It’s a book everyone would love to read, or read again,” says Ferris. “It’s a comfort read for people.”
But if Grindylows and butterbeer aren’t your speed, there’s plenty of other books in the sea, Ferris says.
“To stay connected to literature and art at this time feels important,” she says. “Even if just a little a day or once a week, or you’re having to carve out specific time for it, it always feels good to do it.”
Here’s a look at the other books that have captured our attention during our stay-home end of days, plus more life-affirming library stats to know.
63,628: E-book and audiobook users from January to April 2020
4,720: Number of people who have signed up for a digital library card since the program went live on March 21
4: Self-help and how-to books in the top 25 most-checked-out books, between March 14 and April 29. (They are: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants; You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life; The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store; and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
1,342: Number of checkouts between March 14 and April 29 of Becoming by Michelle Obama, a perennially popular pick since its publication 18 months ago
1: Classic from the 1800s on the top 25 list: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
4: Kid-friendly titles among the top 25 (Besides Harry Potter, there’s Frozen 2: Forest of Shadows, Big Nate: Mr. Popularity, and Jerry Craft’s marvelous, Newbery Medal–winning graphic novel, New Kid.)
869,020: E-checkouts across all platforms (books, video, music, magazines, and comics) February–April of 2019
1,101,868: E-checkouts across all platforms February–April 2020
That’s a 26.8 percent increase.