Though cookbook publishers are usually quick to seek out special sales channels from Williams-Sonoma to the Culinary Institute of America, one venue may not be at the forefront of their minds: libraries. And while health and medicine titles used to be the most popular nonfiction titles checked out of America’s libraries, cookbooks have lately overtaken them to hold the number-one spot. In a survey released by Library Journal February 15, 67% of respondents listed cookbooks (more than any other category) among the top seven categories of nonfiction circulation.
Cookbooks edged out medicine and health, how-to and home arts, current events and politics, and even biography and memoir. They’ve surged in popularity from 2001, when just 27% of librarians put cookbooks among their top five. In fact, cookbooks’ popularity has increased incrementally every year since 2005, when 45% of respondents said cookbooks were in their libraries’ top five subjects, to last year's 67%.
Amy Johnson, an adult reference librarian at the Dexter District Library in Dexter, Mich., says her library’s cookbook section is one of the fastest-growing in the library’s collection, and that the section “circulates very well.” She explains that about two-thirds of the library’s cookbooks have been checked out in the past three months. Among the top circulators right now are The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook by Erin Chase (St. Martin’s Griffin), Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter), and The Blackberry Farm Cookbook by Sam Beall (Clarkson Potter). Eunice Borrelli selects cookbooks for the Capital Area District Library in Lansing, Mich., and notes, “our cookbooks have huge circ numbers.”
Loren Williams, science, society and technology division chief at Brooklyn Public Library’s central library, says, “I have always been aware that cookbooks have always been very popular. In the past few years, though, their popularity has skyrocketed.” Williams says in the past, Brooklyn Public’s cookbooks were used more for students’ assignments, but now, more patrons are interested in culinary careers, and the library has purchased books to fill that need.
What’s driving the interest? The economy, of course, and people’s desire to cook meals at home instead of going out; as well as the popularity of cooking shows. “[Books by] Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis and many others are difficult to keep on the shelves,” says Williams. A number of librarians also report that the increased interest in special diets (e.g., gluten-free, vegan) has led to more patrons asking for books on that topic.