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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Hot Off The Shelf! 5 Of The Most Popular Books At The Milwaukee Public Library

Lauren Sigfusson
The Milwaukee County Federated Library System has about 6 million books in circulation. Some are bound to be more popular than others.

Heading into the library is a dazzling form of adventure. And with nearly 6 million books in circulation in the Milwaukee County Federated Library System, there are a lot of places to go and people to read about. 

For your browsing pleasure, our latest Bubbler Talk aims to find out the most sought-after books in the Milwaukee area. 

Steve Weinstein, ourquestioner, wonders: 

"What is the most checked out item from the Milwaukee Federated Library system? ... Is it the Bible? Is it Gone With The Wind? Is it the Beatles’ "White" Album? What item is it that has been checked out the most from the entire library system from the beginning?”

Steve was inspired by a New York Times article that lists the 10 most checked out books in New York Public Library history. Top on that list is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

To answer Steve’s question, we’d have to go back to at least 1878 when the Wisconsin Legislature gave the OK for Brew City to establish a public library. But we can’t really do that.

Jacki Potratz, a collection development librarian at Milwaukee Public Library, says, “We could potentially go back to 1995 — because that's when the library put their records online as opposed to using the old-fashioned card catalogs.”

Credit Maayan Silver
(From left) Librarians Jacki Potratz and Hillary Evans at Milwaukee Public Library's Central Library Children's Room.

Even though they’ve gone digital, there’s not a concise way to compare titles’ popularity.

“So we can't give an accurate number, which the New York Public Library also admitted in their article — that there was some art to the science,” Jacki explains.

The New York Public Library spent more than six months poring through data. So, for this piece, we’re sticking with the year 2019.

The library doesn't track the most checked-out books. They looked at statistics from  city library branches and suburbs to figure it out. The data includes traditional books, audiobooks and world language editions. E-books are not included because they're checked out via the state library system.

5 Most Checked Out Books From The Milwaukee Public Library System In 2019

Credit Penguin Random House

Becoming by Michelle Obama

This book, including the audiobook, was checked out more than 2,700 times in 2019.

The former First Lady — and first African American in that role — writes about her path to where she is today. The book includes renderings of her childhood growing up on the South Side of Chicago, tales of her life as a working woman, and anecdotes about her time in the White House. 

Obama writes about balancing motherhood and work. She also talks about issues that are meaningful to her, like supporting women and girls around the world, and encouraging access to healthy foods. 

Her publisher describes Becoming as "a deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations — and whose story inspires us to do the same." 

Here's an excerpt:

I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving. It came in the form of bad music, or at least amateur music. Coming up through the floorboards of my bedroom. The plink, plink, plink of students sitting downstairs at my Great Aunt Robbie’s piano, slowly and imperfectly learning their scales.

Credit Penguin Random House

Educated by Tara Westover

Westover writes about growing up with survivalist parents in the mountains of Idaho. They ensured she prepared for the end of days. In the summer, she stewed herbs with her mother, a midwife and healer. In the winters, Westover salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

But she was refused professional medical care, with her mom treating her with herbal salves instead — even after suffering wounds from an explosion.

With no one to ensure Westover was getting a formal education, her parents didn't send her to school or supply coursework for homeschooling. She was also exposed to domestic violence. She studied her way out, teaching herself enough basic math and grammar to get accepted to college, ending up at Harvard and Cambridge. Yet, she also writes about how much more reckoning she had yet to do.

Credit Penguin Random House

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens 

This fictional tale follows Kya Clark, who was abandoned by her family as a child and grows up alone in the swamplands of North Carolina. The chapters alternate years, and ultimately reveal what happened to Chase Andrews, whose body is discovered in a swamp.

The New York Times describes the book as “at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative and a celebration of nature.” 

READ: Shh, No Roaring! When A Lion Lived In The Downtown Milwaukee Library Building

Credit Algonquin Books & Algonquin Young Readers

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Another work of fiction, this book delves into issues that are only too real. Roy and Celestial are a young black couple in love. They are middle class, upwardly mobile, and optimistic about life. Then, Roy gets falsely accused and wrongly convicted of rape. He's sent to prison, and both he and Celestial must find ways to cope. Much of the book is told in the letters the two send back and forth to each other. 

The New York Times writes, "the horror of this story lies in its banality: An innocent man, happily married, who does all the right things to succeed, is nonetheless sidelined to a concrete cell. The unfairness of the years stolen from this couple because of someone else’s mistake, the great cosmic error that derails Roy’s life, is the novel’s slow burn."

Credit Abrams Books

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney

Hillary Evans, children’s books selector for Milwaukee Public Library, says Milwaukee kids are currently loving this series.

Jeff came up with the idea for Diary of a Wimpy Kid in 1998. It's a story about a middle-school weakling named Greg Heffley. The books are a comical take on a kid's ups and downs throughout his day.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney didn’t grow up wanting to be a children’s author. His dream was to become a newspaper cartoonist, but he wasn’t able to get his comic strips syndicated," the author’s website states.


Credit Maayan Silver
Bubbler Talk question-asker Steve at Milwaukee Public Library.

Steve was, admittedly, a bit disappointed that we couldn’t find the most checked out book from the last century and a half.

But he does know the book he’s checked out most from the Milwaukee Library System: Time and Again by Jack Finney. It’s an illustrated novel about an ad agency art director who’s not happy with his life and gets recruited by the CIA to go back in time. One thing the book taught him? 

“Don't be afraid to close your eyes and dream,” Steve says.

It’s something we hopefully get from many books — whether they're popular or not.

As for Steve's suggestion that the Bible might be one of the most checked-out books? Turns out it's one of the most stolen books.

"I can say that's one of the books that we have to reorder most often because it disappears," Jacki laughs. “It sounds counterintuitive ... but all is forgiven, right?”

Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.


Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
Lauren Sigfusson
Lauren became WUWM's digital producer in July 2018.
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