When the Forsyth County Public Library analyzes the 2.8 million items that patrons checked out in 2019, one thing is clear: local residents’ reading habits aren’t that much different from the rest of the country. They like best-sellers. And kids like Pete the Cat.
The library knows this because it uses technology to track all the materials that are checked out of its four branches at Cumming, Hampton, Post Road and Sharon Forks, and it uses that technology to find trends in patron demands.
It knows, for instance, that “Nine Perfect Strangers,” a novel by Liane Moriarty, was checked out 1,039 times last year, the most of any single item. Moriarty came to prominence when her previous novel, “Big Little Lies,” was turned into an Emmy-winning HBO series of the same name. “Nine Perfect Strangers” explores what happens when the lives of nine strangers intersect during 10 days at a health resort.
That Moriarty’s newest novel topped the list of books checked out in Forsyth County last year wasn’t too surprising to library staff. It checks many of the same boxes that most popular books at the library do: it has a notable author whose previous work was turned into a movie or TV series, and it was published long enough ago (in September of 2018) to build up a following.
Indeed, there isn’t too much that surprises the Forsyth County Public Library. Some items and genres and authors remain popular year after year. Among adult patrons, the library sees high demand for domestic thrillers, “cozy fiction” and thriller-suspense titles. Longtime authors like David Baldacci, James Patterson and Nora Roberts continue to rank high.
Juvenile readers (elementary-aged kids) like series such as “The Dogman Series,” “Big Nate,” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” that have been in circulation for years.
For younger readers, board books are popular, like “The Pigeon” series by Mo Willems, especially during the summer.
“Sometimes during the summer, over half the collection may be checked out at a particular branch,” said Jeff Fisher, the material services manager with Forsyth County Public Library. “That’s phenomenal numbers.”
But every now and then, a surprise emerges. Last year’s was “Where The Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens. The book was checked out 660 times in 2019, third-most of any item in the library system.
Fisher identified several reasons for its meteoric rise. First, it gained notoriety from being included on actress Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club. Second, it falls into a genre that is growing, what Fisher calls “own voice” fiction. Titles in that genre are characterized by characters and settings that would be familiar to a particular group of society. “Where The Crawdads Sing” is set in a coastal town in North Carolina in the ‘60s. No surprise, the book was particularly popular in the South, Fisher said. The book was also the county's No. 1 audiobook and e-book in 2019.
“That one took everyone by surprise,” said Stephen Kight, the library’s deputy director. “Publishing industry, librarians, so you had to go and scramble to get more copies because there was such demand for it.”
The demand for "Where The Crawdads Sing" in 2019 is a good predictor that it will also be a popular title with patrons next year, Fisher said, so the library is sure to keep it stocked. The numbers tell it to.
Deciding what materials to offer is a combination of art and science, Kight said, but the library system has increasingly used technology to help. Forsyth County uses Polaris, an integrated management software that allows the library system to digitally track check-outs, manage its catalog and more across all its branches.
Using Polaris, library staff can see the items patrons are checking out by collection of material, by branch, even by the day.
Need to know how many adult Mandarin books were checked out at Sharon Forks on Tuesday? The library can find out.
“We can get to a pretty granular level,” Kight said.
More commonly, the library looks at its data on check-outs on a monthly basis. The IT department generates reports, Fisher aggregates those reports for the library’s Board, administration and his department, and his department uses those reports to guide them in purchasing materials.
One of the most useful metrics they use is the percentage of a collection that is checked out. The library has 30-40 collections, Fisher said, from adult fiction to children’s board books. If the percentage of a collection that is checked out is high, it’s probably time to purchase more items in that collection. If it’s low, the department will try to understand why and develop a plan to help the collection grow.
“We’re almost doing our own version of analytics,” Fisher said. “If you think about Moneyball for baseball, it’s almost the same thing for libraries.”
Overall, the library’s goal is to make the most cost-effective decisions when purchasing items to stock its branches.
“We’re trying to make the smartest budget decisions that we can and buy things that are going to be in the most demand,” Fisher said.
Here is a look at the five most popular items at the Forsyth County Public Library in 2019 in three collections.
1. “Nine Perfect Strangers,” by Liane Moriarty (1,039 check-outs)
2. “The Reckoning,” by John Grisham (724)
3. “Where The Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens (660)
4. “Long Road to Mercy,” by David Baldacci (658)
5. “The Great Alone,” by Kristin Hannah (551)
1. “Educated,” by Tara Westover (446 check-outs)
2. College test preparation titles, like “Cracking The ACT” (392)
3. “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama (375)
4. “Girl, Wash Your Face,” by Rachel Hollis (331)
5. GED test preparation (294)
1. “Pete The Cat” titles, by James Dean and Eric Litwin (2,783 check-outs)
2. “The Pigeon” titles, by Mo Willems (2,204)
3. “Llama Llama” titles, by Anna Dewdney (1,078)
4. “If You Give A” titles, by Laura Joffe Numeroff (885)
5. “Fancy Nancy” titles, by Jane O’Connor and Robin Priess Glasser (442)