100+ Readers on What They’re Borrowing From the Library
07.21.20

I’ve been thinking about all the library books that were checked out at the end of February and in early March, and how together, they might reveal something about our pre-COVID-19 mindsets. I, for one, was preoccupied by a whole other Filofax of hopes, anxieties, and ideas about my reading trajectory when I picked up Natasha Stagg’s essay and story collection Sleeveless from my local branch on March 10th—when I imagined that the parties recounted in the book would make for funny contrast with my own goings-on-about-town rather than as a way to live vicariously through someone else’s bygone specter of a social life. Last week, the New York Public Library opened eight of its libraries for grab-and-go service and contactless pickup, although they won’t require the books to be returned for months (my due date right now is October 14, 2020).

Of course, when libraries close their physical doors for the safety of both staff and patrons, it doesn’t mean the library vanishes altogether. These days, a library card can grant you access to virtual apps of astonishingly high quality, like OverDrive and Libby, where you can check out both audiobooks and ebooks.

Being a cardholder of the public library is one of my great pleasures, and so I wanted to glean some intel from the MR community and see what I might learn through the lens of readers’ relationships with their library, despite the necessitated distance these days. Read on if you’re looking a) for a reason to join your local library if you haven’t already, b) to discover a new service you didn’t know libraries provided, c) to pick up a new book recommendation, or d) to consider a new way to integrate library-going into your weekly routine one day when the coronavirus coast is clear.


What's your one-sentence review of the library book you checked out in March 2020?

And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: “Her honesty and wit helped me better articulate my fear of and desire to have a family.”
Beautiful on the Outside by Adam Rippon: “Rippon is a national treasure and makes me think I could be a figure skater one day even though I’ve had no training.”
Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “A revolutionary book that changed the academic landscape for Indigenous people.”
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing: “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about maitake mushrooms and the cultures around eating and harvesting them.”
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: “A nuanced exploration of race relations through the eyes of a young Black millennial woman; easy, breezy writing with biting observations of privilege.”
Look, There’s a Rocket! by Esther Aarts: “Never underestimate the power of a kids’ board book with sturdy holes for tiny fingers.”
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: “20th-century history from a perspective you’ve probably never heard before, spinning an epic, multi-generational tale that sheds light on the complexity of families and hardship.”
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: “Maybe the book of the year. It is so well written and gripping. I love literally all the characters and would be surprised if they didn’t turn it into a movie.”
Unfollow by Megan Phelps Roper: “Hard to read as a person who has been traumatized by the church (if not to the same extent of Westboro madness) but also very cathartic.”
Admissions by Henry Marsh: “I work in surgery with neurosurgeons, and this book made me love brain surgery and want to go to medical school.”
Sharp by Michelle Dean: “Came for Didion, stayed for everyone else.”
The Stranger by Albert Camus: “Creepy, absurd, but also intensely real, a good way to put whatever struggles you might be facing during the pandemic into rather jarring perspective.”
This Will Only Hurt A Little by Busy Philipps: “I can’t get out of my head that she called herself a ‘sparkly human,’ and I’ve spent too much quar time Rolodexing everyone I’ve ever met and determining whether they’re sparklers or not.”
These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card: “Different members of a Jamaican family telling their stories over generations, from colonial Jamaica to Harlem.”
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown: “A heavy but important book about the destruction of Native American tribes in the late 1800s.”
Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson: “A pocket guide for rebuttals against your climate change-denying family members.”
The Four Seasons by Isadore Sharp: “A fantastic book about the hotel’s history and the philosophy behind one of the most prolific hotel chains.”
Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski: “Offered something new to the widely available set of queer cis male stories and was uncomfortably politically relevant.”
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: “Should be required reading for everyone.” [Ed. note: This was the most commonly mentioned library checkout!]
Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara: “An absolutely drinkable collection of iconic New York heart and scenery.”
Middlemarch by George Eliot: “Loved every minute, and there were lots [of minutes]!”
La Isla Bajo el Mar by Isabel Allende: “If you enjoy detailed descriptions of 18th-century life with a splash of revolution and romance, Allende es la Señora for you.”
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: “A fictionalization of Fleetwood Mac that burns so good.”
Heavy by Kiese Laymon: “Beautiful memoir, tender moments, cutting scenes of growing up Black in Mississippi.”
Dear Girls by Ali Wong: “A much-needed laugh.”
Quiet by Susan Cain: “An intellectual examination on what makes us different.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: “Still infinitely thankful to Ms. Jane Austen for being able to ignite a romance between myself and Mr. Darcy during the quarantine.”
Blindness by José Saramago: “Reading a book about a fictional pandemic during a real pandemic is not for the faint of heart, but it is so beautifully written that it still allows for some of the escapism that the lockdown necessitated.”
Calypso by David Sedaris: “A refreshing, at times uncomfortable, unnervingly accurate collection of the complexities of family. Made me want to get my own family together this summer and have a good, old-fashioned fight.”
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: “An often disturbing narrative from a young woman in New England that swallows you whole.”
Mean by Myriam Gurba: “A raw, spoken word-like memoir about racial and sexual identity, finished in one day.”
How to Read the Constitution and Why by Kimberly L. Wehle: “A must-read to understand the gray areas of our laws.”
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: “Devastatingly beautiful and a required read for all.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: “I can see why this heart-warming, character-focused novel is considered a classic.”
An American Sickness by Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal: “Breaks down the complex structural challenges and misaligned incentives in American healthcare in a tangible and understandable way.”
Theft by Finding by David Sedaris: “Voyeurism into normalcy during an extremely abnormal time.”
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: “Even if you’re a literature lover with no interest in pets, this book WILL make you adopt a pet during the pandemic (I did 🙂 ).”

How many books did you check out?
Did you read the book(s)?
What’s your favorite thing about your local library?

— “My library offered the audiobook So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (their book with the biggest holds list) to all cardholders without a wait time. This is why libraries are powerful. They can offer free access to information that can change a community in flux.”
— “The children’s section is nothing super special, but to my two- and four-year-old boys, it’s magic. A fish lives there and there’s an old desktop computer that they’re allowed to touch.”
— “The library to me is a community anchor–a figurative and literal shelter for people from all walks of life seeking some solace, some knowledge, some stillness. Walking to it on Saturday mornings takes me back to childhood walks to the big old creaky library in my hometown with my dad and our book-borrowing tote bag.”
— “I read about 70 books per year, and I certainly cannot afford to buy them all. I love the library because the books are free, and I have an endless supply. It’s almost too good to be true.”
— “I appreciate all of the hard work they do for underprivileged citizens of New Jersey and their commitment to literacy and programming for children.”
— “I love that they’ve been doing curbside pick up and have set up outside tables (mask and distancing required) for anyone who needs the Wi-Fi.”
— “My favorite thing is that it’s tucked away somehow in New York. It feels hidden in a city where nothing seems to be a secret.”
— “I like high-tech the checkout mechanism is! You stack the books on a fancy scanner and it just knows!”
— “All the childhood memories from there, and feeling book-rich.”
— “Coming across a book you had no intention of checking out before seeing it in person.”
— “How hard staff work to make the materials and programming dynamic, accessible, and true to their community’s needs and wants.”
— “The audiobook access! As a painter, I am constantly pouring through books while I work.”
— “I worked the circulation desk before the shut down and we still stamped the due date and the date it was returned on every book. So you could pick up any book and see all the dates it was checked out and how far the dates go. It’s especially exciting when the books are stamped with dates from the 1980s or older. Someone checked out this book 30 years ago? That’s so cool! And because I checked books out to people, stamping the books is pretty satisfying as well.”
— “The librarians are so helpful and sweet, and there’s a ton of events like flea markets and clothing drives.”
— “In addition to the millions of books they have, they also loan art!”
— “The New York Public Library in Bryant Park is a totally useful tourist attraction that is right across the street from my office (when I used to go to one), so if I finished a book on my morning commute I’d have a whole new one by my lunch break.”
— “They let you just take books!!! For free!!!!”

What do you miss about the physical space?

Smells

— “The smell. Libraries all have that smell.”
— “There was a boba tea cafe on the first floor, and all the study rooms around it smelled vaguely of brown sugar.”

Sounds

— “The boop of the scanner when I check out new books.”
— “The vinyl record section.”
— “I miss the quiet workspace. I teach English, and every year I rely on the library and borrowing books to help create my book list for the following year. I can’t afford to purchase and read every possibility.”

Touch

— “Having a place to go with my boys. Touching things touched by a million other people and not wanting to bathe in hand sanitizer.”
— “For the past three years, I have volunteered with an organization serving refugees and recent immigrants to Canada, and my group meets once a week at the library. I miss those meetings so much.”
— “I miss the satisfaction of dropping off a book well-read.”
— “I miss reading in the A.C.!”
— “I miss physical books. I’ve continued to use my library, but online, but I miss physical books. Some are meant to be read that way and should be. The physical space reminds me that this is time I’m taking for me. To grow, learn, and even just relax and have fun reading! I’ll often go to the park after to start my next book!“

Sights

— “I work at the library, and I love seeing two regulars I know start chatting and a budding friendship. It happens more than you’d think.”
— “Seeing kids in the children’s section sitting and reading picture books.”
— “Watching people wander the stacks like me and seeing what they pick up.”
— “Cute boys.”
— “There is so much magic to be found in walking down rows and rows of books that have been held and loved and cried over by someone or many someones before you. There is deep human connection to be found there. It’s not only the sharing of the story but the sharing of the physical book that lends more togetherness.”
— “The building is unbelievable. It’s six stories tall (pun intended), including a rooftop garden. The main window has an art installation of colorful plastic panels, so the atrium is always awash with bright pinks and oranges.”
— “I miss walking in and feeling calm. It was a calm space that gave me time to myself to worry about nothing but the next book on my list.”
— “Testing my knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System.”
— “I miss being able to see librarian’s recommendations, or sifting through the books and finding a gem I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.”
— “Charming Park Slope historical details at their finest! I love the old moldings and high ceilings and the partial second floor that looks out over the rest of the library.”
— “Walking into a public library is like stepping into a childhood memory. Even though I grew up hundreds of miles away, the shelves, posters, displays, people, sounds, are the same so many years and miles later.”
— “Seeing the librarians, and talking to my neighbors amongst the stacks.”
— “One time, a guy had a cockatiel in there.”
— “The Pratt Brooklyn library is old: It was built in the late 1800s and the stacks were built by Tiffany so when the sun hits, it shines through the frosted glass floors onto bookshelves with ornate metalwork and it’s so calming and beautiful to exist in that space.”
— “Everyone is at the library! Babies and old folks. I miss the newspapers and magazines at the library.”
— “Seeing the positive and important role they play in providing essential services to people in need.”
— “I miss the feeling of the “third space”, or just being able to be around people without actually making plans. As someone who lives alone, these are coveted spaces.”
— “The opportunity for an outing, and to give me the feeling of shopping.”
— “I miss sitting down and ‘sampling’ books.”
— “The triumph of finding the shelf where the book I want is hiding.”

When will you return them?
What made you get a library card in the first place?

— “I needed to use their printer (does anyone actually own a printer?!) and rediscovered a love for reading.”
— “Free books!”
— “Good way to support the local community. I’ve had one forever. Libraries are underrated!”
— “I joined a book club.”
— “I like borrowing books on my e-reader and getting fresh kids’ books after reading the same ones night after night.”
— “Spending way too much money at the bookstore, my credit card basically demanded a library card be introduced to my wallet.”
— “I get a library card everywhere I live because it’s the one truly free service that only ever expands in our society.”
— “To expand myself and my mind beyond work.”
— “A desire to read many books at once and a deadline to push me to actually finish them.”
— “Rediscovering reading for pleasure was one of the best things I did in college. It’s reconnected me to my creative side, helped my mental health, and has just been joyful.”
— “I love physical books, but was running out of shelf space!”
— “My work involved driving in my car a lot, and I wanted to listen to books on tape.”
— “To give my kids the experience of checking out books, picking whatever they want, and a sense of responsibility to care for something that’s not yours and return it.”
— “I always sign up for a library card when I move somewhere new. It makes me feel like I belong, and like I have a reliable place to go and be alone without having to spend money. I work for a non-profit and live on a shoestring budget, so free books are a must at the rate I typically read.”
— “It’s a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to get books, as well as access to many resources!”
— “I get one in every city I move to. The library is a free resource that will go away if you don’t use it. The library has been there for me since I was a poor kid without access to costly American culture, like movie theaters or cable television. The library lends out so many different things besides books!”
— “Until I have space for a full library in my home, it’s much easier. I also love feeling part of a community who share the same books.”
— “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”
— “I always have a library card, and I always have either digital audiobooks checked out, or CDs for my car.”
— “It’s a custom in Finland that every preschool student gets their own library card.”
— “Low budget, high reading drive!”

Have you found a way to get creative with book-borrowing in the past few months?

Good ideas

— “No. But my grandma just bought me a book seat, which I’ve been desperate for since I’ve started reading in bed more often.”
— “Book swaps with strangers through Instagram! It’s been so fun, and I’ve received books from people I don’t even know!”
— “My friends and peers have started an organization called Antiracist Book Exchange. They will buy and ship you a book from a Black-owned bookstore for free! They share a lot of recommendations and resources online.”
— “I’ve been borrowing from a family friend that volunteers at the library and has secret, backdoor access. I’ve also been hitting up Goodwill and local used bookstores now that they’ve reopened. I’ve found some great stuff. I’m also working on putting up a Little Free Library in my town. :^)”
— “I’m quarantining with five other people (my partner and his family) and we’ve started a lending library. When we finish a book, we put it in a central place in the kitchen so the next person can pick it up. :)”
— “Been buying books from Lit Bar, a Black-owned bookstore in the Bronx.”
— “I’ve resorted to buying books for the first time in years. Not a perfect solution to me, but I’ve made donations to the NYPL in the meantime.”

Ebooks aplenty

— “No, the library fully supports virtual borrowing. I’ve continued to borrow and read one book per week.”
— “Overdrive makes it super convenient to get ebooks from the public library. It’s so good that in fact I spearheaded getting Overdrive for the academic library I work in (and it has been a phenomenal success!).”
— “I’ve used the Libby app for borrowing ebooks! Like online shopping but sooooo much better.”
— “I work in the book business. I also use the Overdrive app to check out audiobooks. Axis360 is a comparable app for libraries that don’t use Overdrive.”
— “YES! Libby saved my life. You can borrow audiobooks and ebooks on your device with your library card. Incredible.”
— “Audiobooks, plus actually working through a bookcase of past purchases. I’ve been listening to audiobooks while sewing masks!”
— “I’ve started jogging since the lockdown began and found that on my route there’s a small cabinet where people bring and borrow books which has offered a nice sense of connection in a time when you can’t physically be with others. Seeing the weekly additions and subtractions from the case reminds me that we’re all still here and fighting.”
— “Yes, I’m all about Libby. Also, my friends and I have been exchanging library books we’ve finished.”

All ears

— “My book borrowing has always been digital, but I was stoked to hold onto the CDs in my car for moooonntths of listening.”
— “I’ve bought a few audiobooks, which are perfect for cleaning or cooking, or to listen to something while working.”

“I grew up in libraries and have always loved to read. Books were my first friends. I got interested in library work in high school; it seemed to tick all my boxes (books, research, helping people– check!). In my undergrad, I worked as a student worker in my college’s academic library. It was a great way to get hands-on library experience and see if I would like the reality of librarianship. I ended up being promoted to supplemental staff status after I graduated and worked there for 2 years. I loved assisting patrons, processing new books, shelving, and working with librarians on projects. The librarians I worked with were incredibly kind and encouraging. After that, I knew that I wanted to be a librarian.”

—Autumn, remote intern for Traverse Area District Library in Michigan and graduate student in Library and Information Science

Is there anything you’d like everyone to know about libraries (in and out of quarantine) that they may not be aware of?

“Librarianship is a service profession. We become librarians because we believe in serving our community with cultural and intellectual recreation. We don’t shush anymore and we’re not obsessed with protecting the books on our shelves. Our services are no good if people don’t use them. If the pandemic has shown me anything about my profession, it has only reinforced what I already knew: that librarians are creative and are singularly intent upon serving their community. If you want something but don’t think your library can get it, ask anyway.

Libraries are the only public service left now that are completely accessible to every person in our towns and cities, regardless of their personal wealth. Yes, taxes fund library materials, services, and staff. I would implore people to pay attention to their local budgets. My library’s budget is 1.65% of the total municipal budget. I think that 1.65% is an amazingly reasonable cost for every single child, teen, adult, and senior in town to have access to books, movies, music, games, technology, newspapers, magazines, storytimes, author visits, music performances, lectures, and more. The value-cost ratio is incalculable.”

—Larissa, Head of Reference Services, Duxbury Free Library, Massachusetts

What’s the first book you’re planning to check out when your library reopens?

— “You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe.”
— “Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.”
— “My library opened again last month, and I just checked out My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkate Braithwaite.”
— “I actually want to read American Dirt given all the controversies around it. The Boston Public Library has been open for a few weeks for contactless drop off and pick up but I’m still on the waitlist for that book.”
— “I went briefly today (wearing a mask) to get a copy of Room 1219, which is about the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of the 1920s. I’ve been listening to a podcast about old Hollywood and the pod host read this book.”
— “Oh, I don’t know. Probably something that makes me look smart at the park. Nobody knows you’re reading a book about the science of radiation when you do it on the iPad. And really, what’s the point otherwise?”
— “Farming While Black by Leah Penniman.”
— “I just got my first curbside pickup: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.”
— “Just something old and classic, so I can connect with the people who have flipped its pages before me.”
— “I have The Topeka School by Ben Lerner waiting for me!”
— “Trick Mirror!”
— “My library already reopened! I got some new CDs and a few books on quilting. And some new cookbooks.”
— “The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.”
— “Cookbooks! Reading a recipe off a laptop screen isn’t the same as thumbing through a cookbook and deciding what to make.”
— “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes.”
— “All Adults Here by Emma Straub.”
— “Another book by Jane Austen, the itch still pleads to be scratched.”
— “Janet Mocks’ Surpassing Certainty.”
— “Libraries reopened this month in Singapore! I went for Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly.”
— “Such a tough choice! Probably The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (previously read Underground Railroad and really enjoyed).”
— “I’m continuing to borrow ebooks and audio books for the moment.”
— “I like the element of surprise in a physical library trip, so no plans!”
— “I want to find books about Coney Island. I will physically take those out because of the illustrations.”
— “M Train by Patti Smith.”
— “The Overstory by Richard Powers.”
— “Probably a graphic novel, maybe something by Junji Ito. They’re just not quite the same on a screen, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit to buying a copy.”
— “Indian-ish by Priya Krishna—I’ve been at the top of the waitlist since the beginning of quarantine.”
— “Our libraries have already opened, I’ve borrowed more knitting books.”
—  “Big Friendship by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow.”

Graphics by Lorenza Centi.