SPL’s Peak Picks presents a curated collection of multiple copies of about 40 popular titles, both fiction and nonfiction, shelved together and available for immediate checkout at your neighborhood library; first come, first served.

Share story

Lit Life

Regular users of the Seattle Public Library have long known that checking out a particularly popular book might mean waiting in line, possibly for a long time. Want to read, for example, Celeste Ng’s acclaimed new novel, “Little Fires Everywhere”? As of last week, if you placed a hold on SPL’s website, you’d be number 755 in line. (Out of 233 copies, so it’s not quite as bad as it looks — but still, a wait.) Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning “Sing, Unburied, Sing”? 693 holds on 222 copies. Amor Towles’ best-selling “A Gentleman in Moscow”? 395 holds on 135 copies.

Or you could just visit your neighborhood library and quite possibly find it right there on the shelf, thanks to a new program called Peak Picks. Launched in selected SPL locations last May and in all branches in November, Peak Picks presents a curated collection of multiple copies of about 40 popular titles, both fiction and nonfiction, shelved together and available for immediate checkout; first-come, first-served. Patrons can take as many as they want — the catch is that each book must be returned within two weeks (normal checkout is three weeks), with no renewals.

Helen Gutierrez, collection-services manager at SPL, noted that while the program is new here, it’s common in other library systems. (King County Libraries, for example, has a similar program called Lucky Day.) “Everyone has their own unique take on the idea,” she said. “Every community is different, and you have to create it with your staff and your collection.”

Gutierrez previously helped launch the Express Reads program at the Maricopa County Library in Arizona, a program that had a one-week limit for books to be returned. This worked well in the Phoenix area, she said, which has many retirees with plenty of reading time. For Seattle, Gutierrez suggested one week for the program and was quickly voted down by her colleagues: “Everybody here said patrons wouldn’t be excited about a seven-day turnaround!” Two weeks, all agreed, was more reasonable.

A library committee selected the initial lineup of 55 Peak Picks titles, and more than 200 copies of each book on the list was purchased for the program, which operates on a separate budget from the regular library purchasing budget. (For the regular, non-PP collection, “we continue to buy like we normally would buy,” Gutierrez explained.) Books were then distributed among the various branch libraries: 2 to 15 copies each, apportioned according to the size of the branch.

The program was an immediate hit, with nearly 70,000 books checked out through the end of 2017. And that two-week limit hasn’t been a problem: average checkout has been 12 days. If you don’t finish the book in time, Gutierrez suggested, just return it and walk back over to the Peak Picks table — if you’re lucky, you might be able to check out another copy and pick up where you left off.

“Right now we have about 40 in the program — we thought 55 was too much,” said Gutierrez. “We retire titles every month, so we can add new titles. We’re just kind of watching their popularity and space considerations. The collection acts differently at different locations.”

And what have been the most popular titles? Anything local, said Gutierrez, noting the popularity of “Seattle Walks” and “Discovering Seattle Parks: A Local’s Guide.” Also quickly disappearing from the shelves: “The RBG Workout” and “Little Fires Everywhere.”

“The selection librarians, they just have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the publishing industry, what’s going on locally, what are people talking about, anticipating interest in them. Pretty much anything they pick has been popular.” Only one selection, said Gutierrez, has been a “semi-dud”: Alec Baldwin’s “Nevertheless.”

New titles to the program for February — and already on Peak Picks tables — include the Oprah’s Book Club pick “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones; Dave Eggers’ “The Monk of Mokha”; “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah (author of the best-selling “The Nightingale”); and Zadie Smith’s essay collection “Feel Free.” Coming soon are Min Jin Lee’s National Book Award finalist “Pachinko,” Steven Pinker’s nonfiction book “Enlightenment NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism & Progress” and Laura Lippman’s noirish mystery “Sunburn.” Peak Picks aren’t restricted to newly published work; Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 fantasy novel, “A Wrinkle in Time,” joins the program this month, just in time for the upcoming movie (in theaters March 9).

Titles leave the program when “the interest dies down,” said Gutierrez; the books then join the main collection, filling any active holds. Once multiple copies are no longer needed for the library’s general collection, a number of fates might await them: use for outreach as part of SPL’s mobile services; deposit collections at seniors’ communities; or possibly the Friends of The Seattle Public Library book sales, “so the proceeds end up coming back to help us with the collection.” Sometimes, they end up getting recycled — “they get loved to death, that’s the dream,” Gutierrez said.

For many of us, libraries are deliciously inviting places full of stories; Peak Picks, with its overflowing shelves and tables, makes some of the best of those stories even easier to find. “We want that experience of the cornucopia, the abundance of selection,” said Gutierrez. “People should feel like they can take as much as they want, peruse things at their leisure at home, take four or five titles home. It should be guilt-free, fun book shopping.”