Going to the Columbia City library branch has become a weekly routine for Melissa Cummings’ family. 

Born and raised in Seattle and now a mother of two, she said the branch has a little something for everyone. Her partner browses the cookbooks. Her teenage son peruses tomes on graffiti art and street photography. Her 5-year-old daughter lately has been loving pirate stories and facts about the solar system.  

“We always have something on hold,” Cummings said. 

The Seattle Public Library has been a haven for book lovers and information seekers alike for over 130 years, helping patrons navigate and make sense of an ever-changing world. 

Over the decades, the parcels of knowledge have changed shape and form. DVDs, e-books, audiobooks, even equipment like Wi-Fi hot spots have all joined the library’s growing collection. 

Physical books — hardcovers, paperbacks, picture books — still have their place. Patrons checked out about 4.6 million of them last year, nearing levels seen before the pandemic as the library system restored open hours and increased in-person programming like author events and free drop-in after-school tutoring. 

Some stories were beloved systemwide last year — national hits like Michelle Zauner’s memoir “Crying in H Mart” and Louise Erdrich’s ghost story “The Sentence.” Patrons checked out physical copies of the latter more than any other adult fiction book.  


In the various corners of the library system, Seattle readers’ sundry preferences and tastes are revealed, a reflection of the city’s diversity and needs. 

Over the last year, “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk” by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe was the most-checked out physical adult nonfiction book in Columbia City.

In Broadview, residents have been hungry for detective novels and mysteries, with Nita Prose’s murder mystery “The Maid” landing as the second-most-checked out physical adult fiction book over the last 12 months. The genre has become so popular that the branch recently increased the amount of shelf space dedicated to mysteries, said Dawn Rutherford, the regional manager overseeing northwest libraries. 

And in Rainier Beach, the branch hosts the system’s largest number of computers outside of the Central Library, making it a frequent after-school destination for nearby students. 

There, graphic novels dominated. Six of the 10 teen fiction books that were most frequently checked out physically in the last year were volumes in the “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba” manga series. 

A common theme can be seen across library branches in the last year: Seattle readers trying to reckon with the emotional and psychological turmoil brought on by COVID-19. 


The self-help book “Atlas of the Heart: ​​Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience” by Brené Brown was among every branch’s 10 most frequently physically checked out adult nonfiction books. Readers also regularly turned to Johann Hari’s book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again.”

Other commonly checked out print books point to patrons moving away from the routines of the pandemic. “The Weekday Vegetarians,” a cookbook by Jenny Rosenstrach, was a staple of the library system’s Peak Picks collection, which drives many checkouts for print materials.

“At a certain point, people were exhausted,” selection services librarian Frank Brasile said. “The landscape around cookbooks and publishing changed from ‘Make your own sourdough’ to ‘Five ingredient dinners’ or ‘Dinners you can make in 20, 30 minutes.’ ” 

In some cases, specific branches serve specific needs for local residents living in the neighborhood.

At the International District/Chinatown branch, residents are using the library’s collection to build English language skills. “Side by Side Plus” books, aimed at strengthening conversational skills, grammar and vocabulary, were among the 20 most commonly checked out physical adult nonfiction books at the branch. 

That’s an indication of the need for more English language classes in Seattle, said Hueiling Chan, program director of family youth services at the Chinese Information and Service Center. 


Already scarce, many such classes went virtual during the pandemic, making it difficult for older residents without computers or technology skills to participate, Chan said. 

“I think it’s very hard for people to learn English, which is so important to survive here, so I’m not surprised that English-learning books is one of the most popular,” Chan said. “That’s one of the things I would suggest the library do is get more so people can utilize those resources.” 

Meanwhile, in Fremont, books in French were the most commonly checked out non-English language book. At High Point in West Seattle, Somali books were checked out nearly 200 times. 

At the South Park library, the Spanish-language collection takes up two full shelving units for adults and two for children. “Pretty big considering the size of the branch,” supervising librarian Lupine Miller said. Spanish-language books were checked out more than 2,000 times there last year. 

Physical copies of “Grow More Food: A Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Getting the Biggest Harvest Possible From a Space of Any Size” by Colin McCrate & Brad Halm, were checked out more than 100 times at each of the Ballard, Broadview, Greenwood, Northeast and Southwest branches.

The strong interest in horticulture, particularly among residents in North Seattle, isn’t surprising, said Laura Matter, program director of Natural Yard Care at Tilth Alliance, based in Wallingford.  


People who’d lost their jobs, or found themselves seeking new hobbies, turned to urban gardening, flooding the organization with calls about how to grow fruits and vegetables. 

“We saw a lot of people in neighborhoods building gardens, putting raised beds in parking strips,” Matter said. “I’d walk down my block and there’d be several people putting in new garden beds.”  

Seattle’s libraries are places where everyone is welcome, said Richard Counsil, interim regional manager for the Southeast region, opening the door for information and discovery.  

Parents can read a childhood favorite to their kids, students can study, unhoused residents can use the computers, community groups can host workshops, older residents can organize book clubs. 

“Space in a library, in my experience, is where a lot of people can feel seen,” Counsil said. “Once they feel like their need for space and connection, even in a basic way, is satisfied, you start to see interest in logging on the computers and checking out materials and getting a library card.” 

One such book club, organized by the South Park Senior Center, gathered in a small conference room on a recent Wednesday evening to eat dinner and discuss their latest read, “The River That Made Seattle” by BJ Cummings, a sprawling, scholarly look at the Duwamish River. 

The group started meeting last summer, filling a void in the local book club community that had languished during the pandemic. The South Park branch works closely with them, helping members decide on a book to read each month, and assists members in securing and checking out copies. 

It was a smaller turnout than normal, just a trio of women. Maybe it’s because of the dreary winter weather, member Joanne Counts mused. No matter, they’ll carry on. Sunnier days will come, and there are more books to read.