Since The New York Public Library’s founding in 1895, millions of books have been checked out by patrons of all ages throughout the city. In honor of the 125th anniversary, a team of experts from the Library carefully evaluated a series of key factors to determine the most borrowed books, including historic checkout and circulation data (for all formats, including e-books), overall trends, current events, popularity, length of time in print, and presence in the Library catalog.

Read on to discover the top 10 checkouts in our history. 

  1. 1

    The Snowy Day: 485,583 checkouts

    In print and in the Library’s catalog continuously since 1962, this charming, beautifully illustrated tale of a child enjoying the simple magic that snow brings to his city is one of the Library’s top circulated books every year, across all neighborhoods we serve. The story—available in a multitude of languages—has a universal appeal and is well-known, being both a Caldecott Medal winner and one of the earliest examples of diversity in children’s books. At the end of the day, though, it’s all about the story—and how the brilliantly told tale of Peter and his wintry adventure transcends generations.
  2. 1

    The Cat in the Hat: 469,650 checkouts

    Instantly popular and considered quite innovative when it was first published in 1957, The Cat in the Hat is always in demand at the  Library. Of all the books on this list, this book is perhaps most ingrained in the zeitgeist—a perennial first checkout, or birthday party or baby shower gift. Parents remember it fondly and read it to their children, and its 236 rhyming words always delight.
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    1984: 441,770 checkouts

    George Orwell’s dystopian novella has been a regular on high school reading lists almost since its publication in 1949. Its universal appeal and relatively short length make it both popular and a quick read, leading to increased checkouts. The book has also seen spikes in popularity based on the ever-changing sociopolitical climate of the United States. The recent popularity of dystopian fiction (such as The Hunger Games Trilogy, for example) has also increased interest in this classic of the genre.
  4. 4

    Where the Wild Things Are: 436,016 checkouts

    It’s still creating a rumpus. The imaginative, relatable story of Max and his adventures with the Wild Things (often praised for creatively sharing how children cope with their emotions) has been in print since 1963. Over that time, it has received continuous attention and praise, including winning a Caldecott Medal, recognition on numerous library and school lists, and being adapted into a live-action film. The book’s incredible artwork helps capture the imagination of adults and kids alike, which is why, all these years later, Max still reigns.
  5. 5

    To Kill a Mockingbird: 422,912 checkouts

    The novel was an instant success when it was first published in 1960, and ever since has been a perennial favorite on high school and middle school reading lists. The Pulitzer Prize–winning book is also relatively short, contributing to more checkouts. The book—often in the news because of its serious themes—has also been made into a film and play. Sometimes dubbed "America’s novel," there’s also a bit of cultural peer pressure around this novel, with people feeling they should read it.  
  6. 2

    Charlotte's Web: 337,948 checkouts

    This children’s classic is the ultimate relatable story: accessible to all ages but profound, emotional, and memorable. For children, it’s a magical farm story populated with lovable characters. For adults, it digs into themes of friendship and loss in an innocent, understandable manner. In print since 1952, the (relatively short) story of the friendship between Wilbur and Charlotte has tugged at the heartstrings of generation after generation of readers. No one ever forgets the story, and it’s one that parents often like to share with their children.
  7. 2

    Fahrenheit 451: 316,404 checkouts

    Another regular on high school reading lists, the relatively short 1953 novel about destroying books continues to be one of the Library’s most popular titles every year. As with 1984, Fahrenheit 451 sees spikes in popularity based on current events, and has seen a recent spike along with the popularity in dystopian fiction. In addition to its universal appeal, author Ray Bradbury has a very loyal fan base who can be counted on for repeated checkouts.
  8. 7

    How to Win Friends and Influence People: 284,524 checkouts

    In constant circulation since 1936 and one of the best-selling books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People has a spectacular legacy. Everyone knows this book—it is almost always recommended for people looking to improve at work or in life, and it’s written in an accessible, common sense tone that provides not only advice but also comfort. The ultimate “self-help book,” it also has a very memorable and direct title that generates smirks, but also cuts to the point. Though its circulation peaked years ago, it still generates checkouts as new readers look for the key to friends and influence.
  9. 3

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: 231,022 checkouts

    The only way a book published in the late 1990s could crack an all-time top checkouts list, competing with books that have been on library shelves for decades, is if it was an absolute phenomenon. Magic, if you will. Enter Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s epic fantasy series about a boy wizard and his fight against evil was (and remains) so enormously popular that when it was released in the U.S. in 1998, it sparked book release parties with hours-long lines, films, theme parks, toys, and more. The first book in the saga made this list, and while it has a steady stream of checkouts each year, it also spikes when new films or new editions of the book come out. In 10 years, expect this book to climb much higher (and the other six in the series to make appearances).
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    The Very Hungry Caterpillar: 189,550 checkouts

    This book—in print since 1969—is a favorite among librarians and teachers because of its interactive nature and unique format. The relatable story of the little caterpillar who is always hungry (and sometimes eats the wrong things) is therefore a staple for kids learning to read. Additionally, its bright, bold, colorful artwork (and kind of surprise ending) is intriguing and exciting to young children, who might ask to hear the story over and over.

Honorable Mention

  1. Goodnight Moon

    Helping soothe countless children to sleep since it was first published in 1947, Goodnight Moon is one of the best-selling kids books of all time. The pattern and rhythm of words creates an almost unexplainable magic, especially when read out loud, charming children with the cozy and comfortable world of the familiar. By all measures, this book should be a top checkout (in fact, it might be the top checkout) if not for an odd piece of history: extremely influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore hated Goodnight Moon when it first came out. As a result, the Library didn’t carry it until 1972. That lost time bumped the book off the top 10 list for now. But give it time.

A Note on Methodology

How did we possibly determine the top 10 checkouts of all time, you may ask? Well, we got together a team of experts here at the Library, who carefully evaluated a series of key factors. In addition to historic checkout and circulation data, overall trends, current events, popularity, length of time in print, and presence in the Library catalog, some other key factors included:

  • Length: The shorter the book, the more turnover or circulation. This is why children’s books are often among the most circulated.

  • Length of time in print: Clearly, the longer a story is in print, the longer the public has to check it out.

  • Languages available: In a city like New York, the more languages a title is available in means more checkouts.

  • Universal appeal: The more a story appeals to different tastes, the more checkouts it will receive

  • Current events: Particularly with adult books, what is happening in the world greatly impacts checkouts.

  • School: If a book has been on school lists for many decades, it is more likely to be a top checkout.

  • Awards and acknowledgment: Awards generate awareness and excitement that then generate checkouts.