A global pandemic and a national reckoning with race and social justice helped turn 2020 into a record year for digital lending in public libraries, according to OverDrive, the leading digital platform for public libraries and schools. Readers worldwide borrowed some 430 million e-books, audiobooks and digital magazines in the year, a hefty 33% increase over 2019, OverDrive officials reported, based on data drawn from some 65,000 libraries and schools worldwide.

In a release this week, OverDrive checked off a list of records set in 2020, including:

  • Total digital checkouts from libraries and schools: 430 million (+33% over 2019)
  • E-books borrowed: 289 million (+40%)
  • Children/YA genre checkouts: 111 million (+79%)
  • E-book and audiobook holds/wait listed: 187 million (+44%)
  • 102 public library systems around the world (+72%) achieved more than 1 million digital book checkouts

In one notable twist, OverDrive reported 138 million digital audiobook lends, and a healthy 20% increase over 2019. Yet that rate of growth for digital audio in 2020, the hottest segment of the publishing industry over the last decade, actually declined over last year, with OverDrive executives citing an understandable cause: less commuting.

In reporting a record 102 libraries surpassing the one million digital checkouts milestone in 2020, OverDrive pointed out that many within that group did far better than that number: some 26 library systems notched over two million checkouts; 10 had over three million checkouts; six over four million, three over over five million; three over six million; two over seven million; and one library system recorded more than eight million digital lends (OverDrive says the full list will be made public soon).

In addition to public libraries, OverDrive saw massive growth for its school-oriented business, through its Sora student reading app. Sora has been growing rapidly since its launch in September of 2018, but adoption surged after the pandemic hit and schools were forced to go remote. OverDrive reports that some 43,000 schools worldwide are now using the Sora app.

Overall, OverDrive executives reported more than 20,000 new libraries and schools joined its network in 2020 as well as 12 additional countries. That growth was driven not only by the global pandemic, but also the acquisition of RBdigital, which was completed in June of 2020, adding “hundreds of libraries and schools” to OverDrive’s existing network.

Top Titles

In terms of what library users checked out, OverDrive reports that the most significant genre growth in 2020 came from children’s and YA fiction and nonfiction—no doubt owing to the pandemic, which forced a switch to remote and hybrid learning. Those numbers were boosted by OverDrive's increase in school and public library partnerships, which enabled students to use their school credentials to borrow e-books and audiobooks from both their school and local public library.

Further, in response to social unrest and widespread civil protests this summer, OverDrive worked with publishers, libraries, and schools to make a large collection of e-books about social justice and books written by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) or marginalized communities, more widely available.

Most popular e-books borrowed from libraries in 2020:

  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Putnam)
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown)
  • Educated by Tara Westover (Random House Publishing Group)
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin Publishing Group)
  • The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (Viking/Dorman)

Most popular audiobooks borrowed from libraries in 2020:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling (Pottermore)
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama (Penguin Random House Audio)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Penguin Random House Audio)
  • Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (Hachette Audio)
  • Educated by Tara Westover (Penguin Random House Audio)

Top digital books borrowed from libraries by genre:

  • Adult fiction: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Putnam)
  • Adult nonfiction: Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown)
  • Young adult fiction: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray)
  • Children’s fiction: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling (Pottermore)

A full set of the set of most popular lists can be found on the OverDrive website.