Building the Stacks

girl looking through the bookshelf smiling

Mt. Lebanon Public Library runs up a pretty big tab at the bookstore.


ncluding electronic resources and collection management software, the library spends $394,159 on its collection.

The Friends of the Library provide about $25,000 a year for the library’s Book Stop and Media Stop, and some patrons will pay for a memorial book in someone’s name, but the majority of the money comes from municipal, Regional Asset District and state funds, says Library Director Robyn Vittek.

The librarians draw from a variety of sources when deciding what to purchase. Trade publications, including Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal and Book Riot; book reviews and bestseller lists in Kirkus Review, the New York Times, Washington Post, Granta, the Paris Review and The Atlantic; and a subscription library service called Edelweiss.

“Plus, we’re all readers,” said Associate Library Director Sharon Bruni. “We’re active on Instagram and we’re looking at bookstores throughout the United States and throughout the world.”

Bruni, Sharon Verminski-Wilson, Sarah McGowan and Eric Meisberger are the selection team for the adult section of the library.

“Sarah is a phenomenally well-read librarian,” said Bruni. “She has a depth of knowledge of literature that is a huge gift to us. She is really aware of all the small presses in the publishing world.

woman taking a book off a shelf at a library
Librarian Sarah McGowan browses through the library’s newly reconfigured art book collection. The books were recently recataloged according to art movements and time periods to allow for more user-friendly browsing.

“Eric has a strong interest in labor history, music and also likes cozy mysteries,” she added. “Sharon manages our Ingram (book distributor) account and makes certain each month that all the titles we should purchase are purchased by her thorough approach to collection development. She really is the spine of our overall operation.

“Elizabeth Krebs is also an integral component of our books-to-shelves team,” said Bruni. “We are so fortunate to have professionals that have such a deep knowledge of collection management on our team.”

Ingram is a book distributor the library works with to update and manage its collection. More than just a book seller, Ingram also offers book lists on a variety of topics and other tools aimed at managing a book collection. The library also subscribes to Edelweiss, a service that provides early access to publisher catalogs, and can assist librarians in analyzing its collection.

“If we feed our collection into Edelweiss, we can find out where we have weaknesses,” Bruni said, “gaps in the collection, things that are stale, that have been on our shelves too long, and how we compare to other public libraries and bookstores throughout the United States.”

The team is always looking for ways to make the collection more diverse. Another way to do that is to see what specialty bookstores are buying, such as Mahogany Books, which specializes in Black literature.

“We try to keep up with what’s popular and also what’s critically acclaimed,” said McGowan. “We’re very lucky here because we can also take chances. We have a lot of stuff in our collection that you won’t find at other libraries, just because we can take chances on small-press books which we really like to do and we like to promote. We’re big small press readers around here, so titles that maybe won’t get that much public attention, aren’t necessarily going to be on Book Tok, but it’s still a critically acclaimed book. We like to get those.”

Some recent small-press books only in Mt. Lebanon’s catalog include Natural Causes by Nina Lykke, Open Letter Press; Valancourt Press’s Orchard of the Dead by Stefan Grabinski and Winter Love by Suyin Han, McNally Editions.

The library also welcomes suggestions from patrons.

“We have a form on our website where people can suggest a purchase,” said McGowan. “We try to stay away from self-published titles just because the quality control isn’t always the same as we find from publishing houses. We do make exceptions for local authors, but in general we try to shy away from that.”

Cataloging and curating

Finding fiction on the shelves is easy: Books are shelved alphabetically, so if you remember that ABC song, you’re good to go. Nonfiction can be a little more complex.

The library uses a modified version of the Dewey Decimal System, the library cataloguing tool developed by librarian Melvil Dewey in the late 19th century, and which has been under scrutiny for some time, because of its outmoded and sometimes offensive categorizations (see sidebar, page 29).

“Because we’re unique in how we handle Dewey, we usually get those (nonfiction books) uncataloged,” said Bruni. She is currently working on tweaking the way the library categorizes books about art.

“You can do it by the medium or the time period,” said Bruni. “We chose the time period, because it allows us to keep artists together more. I’m also trying to expand it so it’s more representative, more women artists, people of color so that the collection’s deeper and just more interesting.”

While most libraries keep their biographies in the same section, in Mt. Lebanon you’ll find them interspersed within the collection.

“All of our biographies are in the larger collection, so if you want a music biography, you’re going to go into music,” Bruni said. “We hope that encourages people to read additional books.”

So looking for a biography of Janis Joplin could lead you to read about Woodstock; Joplin and Jimi Hendrix both performed at Woodstock and both were members of the 27 Club, musicians who died at that age, which could lead to reading about Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain.

“We’re all about rabbit holes here,” Bruni said. “We want people to have that lovely experience, not necessarily relying on outside sources, but on their own  interest.”

Dana Jones orders nonfiction titles for the children’s library. She works to ensure the collection is up to date.

“For example, just the other day, someone wanted books on cerebral palsy, and as I’m helping them, I’m realizing, ‘Oh, I need some more current information about this,’” she said. “That information can change quickly, and I need to be looking for newer resources about this. So just helping a patron will sometimes inform whether I need to update a part of the collection.”

The library always has to make room on the shelves for new material. “We created a plan that we try to weed each section,” Bruni said. “When you’re weeding, it’s not just getting rid of things, it’s finding ways to strengthen the collection.”

a man straightening a book on a shelf showing graphic novels
Circulation clerk Chris Lutes straightens the adult graphic novel area inside the library. The section also carries a selection of graphic novels produced in Pittsburgh, such as the I Am Stan biography of Stan Lee by Pittsburgh artist Tom Scioli.

Boosting adult graphic novels

Library clerk Chris Lutes found some room for expansion in the graphic novel section, something that’s typically reserved for children and young adults.

“I think a lot of libraries have a tendency to lump all graphic fiction together in a young adult section,” Lutes said. “So we were kind of missing out on some of the more popular adult graphic novels that were coming out.”

Lutes moved here three years ago with his wife, who is an assistant director at the Peters Township Public Library. Before moving here from Los Angeles, Lutes ran a comic book store, and had worked in both independent and big-box bookstores. The library repurposed some space along the wall facing Castle Shannon Boulevard to accommodate the growing graphic collection.

“That was an area where we had a hard time creating displays,” said Lutes. “It was empty and we would have rotating displays there and it did not get very good circulation and we couldn’t figure out why. Maybe people were distracted by the tables and didn’t end up there or something. That was kind of the only space available and it’s done incredibly well.”

Lutes expanded the collection to include a Made in Pittsburgh section.

“Pittsburgh has a very rich comics history,” Lutes said. “I wanted to highlight some creators, some famous, you know, some very famous works.”

Lutes found a YouTube channel co-hosted by Pittsburgh cartoonist Jim Rugg that talked a lot about Pittsburgh’s comics history. “A lot of these guys that I’ve heard of through a variety of periods in the comics industry came from Pittsburgh, not a town that I hear associated with the comics industry very much, and I just kind of built from there.”

Lutes sometimes has to chase down books that are out of print. He makes the rounds of comic book stores to see what he can find.

“The comic book stores here are amazing. I came from a gigantic area that seemed to have everything, and the comic book stores here blow them away.”

“It’s looking more like a bookstore”

The best way to bring in customers is to spotlight the merchandise.

M.A. Jackson and Lutes meet twice a year with Bruni to plan out six months’ worth of displays on the library’s 10 display tables.

“A lot of the stacks and libraries feel like these labyrinths that people almost don’t want to go into,” said Lutes. “So the more we can get stuff out and in front of their faces, the more the books circulate.”

a man with a backpack looking at a display of books with the subject of gardening
Circulation clerk Chris Lutes straightens the adult graphic novel area inside the library. The section also carries a selection of graphic novels produced in Pittsburgh, such as the I Am Stan biography of Stan Lee by Pittsburgh artist Tom Scioli.

They try to strike a balance between seasonal and fun: spring gardening, holidays, cultural heritage displays, mixed in with displays like the popular Summer Road Trip, a U.S. map marked with the locations of famous works of literature.

“One of the things we kind of do is look at a list of these kind of obscure fun celebrations or observances that people have created and then mash them up,” Lutes said.

Like Pirates and Paramours, the mashup of National Pirate Month and National Romance Novel Month.

“I could not keep it stocked,” said Lutes. “And surprisingly, all the pirate books went first. You never know when you’re going to come on something like that, but the more we can interject humor like that into it, I think that that tends to do better.”

“Usually I look up things like the best books you’ve never heard of, or the best science fiction books you’ve never heard of,” Jackson said, “but we do add some staff favorites as well. We wrap the books, put a couple of clues as to what type of book it is on the front and then we set it out and hope our patrons will go on a blind date and fall in love.”

So, for example, you see LGBTQ. Sad. Western. You go home with Brokeback Mountain. Time travel. Romance. Scotland. Meet Outlander.

"The more we can get stuff out and in front of (patrons') faces, the more the books circulate."“We got the nicest note this year from somebody who discovered (author) Evelyn Waugh. This woman loves him now and I felt really good about it because it was a book that I personally liked,” says Jackson.

The Blind Date with a Book is one of the most popular displays. “I wrapped 180 books this year,” Jackson says. “Like, all I did was wrap freakin’ books.”

Lutes believes the ramped-up displays account for higher circulation numbers.  “In my conversations with people at other libraries, they don’t have the number of rotating displays that we do. And that’s really generated a lot of circulation. The numbers that I saw, I mean we ended up doubling our display space because of it.”

In the 10 years Jackson has worked at the library, she has seen the display section mushroom. “It’s looking more like a bookstore … where you go in and they have displays. When I started here, it was just the new book section with nonfiction, fiction, and mysteries. We still feature those new books, but now we have 10 tables of rotating displays that really showcase our collection.”

Teen librarian Katie Donahoe lets high school student volunteers help with monthly book displays. “I have this group of three kids, Lucy, Amalie, and Luca, who volunteer together on Tuesdays. “Usually I’ll give them a theme, be it seasonal, an upcoming holiday, or maybe there’s an important awareness month coming up, and be like, ‘OK, pick some books related to these themes.’ I appreciate teens giving me their input,” she said. “Kids won’t read something simply because I said I liked it; they would rather read something their friends liked and recommended.”

She also ties in the displays to what the teens are studying in school, such as folklore and mythology, or on upcoming events, like the Tekko anime convention.

In addition to purchasing teen fiction and non-fiction, Donahoe also is in charge of the teen and adult video game and board game purchasing. “There’s been a huge interest in D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) lately.” In the children’s department, children’s librarian Rachel Blier runs a club for third- through fifth-graders. In the teen department, seventh-grader Sonny Dunlap runs a weekly game for middle and high school students.

For D&D beginners, the library has books with pre-written adventures in the board games collection, to allow players to get comfortable with creating their own quests. Many of the Dungeons & Dragons books come from Drive Thru RPG, an online outlet for small-press and indie gaming titles, or Games Unlimited, a game shop in Squirrel Hill that’s been in business for 45 years.

“We are going to chat with Games Unlimited about becoming a vendor so we know the money’s going back into the community. We’re working on that and hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have something ironed out.”

Blier manages and purchases items for the teen graphic novel collection and the manga section.

The children’s section has an extensive collection of books aimed at parents and teachers, conveniently located next to the Family Place play area, so parents can browse while their kids play.

“We’re always changing our displays,” said children’s librarian Elizabeth Schwertfuehrer. “We do seasonal displays, weekly displays, and sometimes we do displays just to promote a lesser-known part of our collection. We have a really good folktale and fairy tale collection here. It’s one of the best around but they don’t always go out.”

Around Valentine’s Day they riffed off of Blind Date With A Book to create Chocolate Box Mysteries.

“It was a younger version of Blind Date With A Book, and it was hugely popular,” said Schwertfuehrer. “It was a little box with a with a book inside, with a description like you’d describe a piece of chocolate.”

Sometimes the displays can be, unsurprisingly, kind of juvenile.

“I did a display of things that smell,” said Jones, “and it was things like skunks and garbage.” Know your audience.

“The best feedback we can get is that the display is empty and then we know ‘Oh, this is a good one,’” Jones said.


Melvil Dewey: what a guy!

black and white image of Melvil Dewey, Secretary University State of New York and Director State LibraryThe man who came up with the format that most libraries use to classify its books was, it turns out, a pretty dodgy character. A founding member of the American Library Association, Dewey developed his system in the 1870s, while working at the Amherst College Library in Massachusetts. One could say that both the man and the system were products of their time. In its original form, anything written by or about Black people was relegated to one of two categories: international migration and colonization, or slavery and emancipation. The religion section still contains subdivisions dedicated to the Bible, Christianity, Christian practice and observance, Christian orders and local churches, history of Christianity, Christian denominations and one last subsection, just called Other Religions. Books on LGBTQ+ topics were originally found under either Mental Derangement or Abnormal Psychology.

Dewey himself founded a club in Lake Placid, New York, in 1895, with a very explicit policy against admitting Black people or Jewish people. He faced a number of sexual harassment allegations, including an out-of-court settlement in 1929 for $2,147, equivalent to about $40,000 in 2024. As more unsavory stories emerged, in 2019 the American Library Association changed the name of its highest award from the Melvil Dewey Medal to the ALA Medal of Excellence.

“The staff has been thinking a long time about modernizing Dewey so that it is representative of the 21st century world,” Bruni said. “There is a need to continue to make our collection accessible to patrons who locate books strictly by the catalog, so Dewey will still be used in the non-fiction collection. However, it will be examined so that its arrangement is inclusive and broadly representative. We hope that our browsers will be inspired by the works and stories that weave the rich tapestry of human experience.”

Photography by John Schisler