Tag Archives: Readers’ Advisory

I Really Liked…

Boy reading in the libraryAs you may have heard before, one of the things library staff do, and really LOVE to do, is something called readers’ advisory. That’s where you ask us to help you find a good book to read. Sometimes you’re looking for another book by an author you’ve already read and liked. Other times you’ve just finished something great and want another one just like it. Often, you have no idea what you’re looking for; you just know you need something to read. No matter the circumstances, we can help you!

Typically, we will begin by asking you what types of books you like to read. Is there a particular genre you like best (mysteries, science fiction, family dramas) or one we should avoid? Then we’ll usually ask you about the last book you read that you really enjoyed. We’ll ask why you liked that book. Was it the plot, the characters, the time period or setting, or the way it was written? Once you provide us with this information, we’re off! We can begin finding titles for you using our “official” library resources like the online catalog or a database like Novelist. But we often use “unofficial” resources too, like our brains and our colleagues. If we haven’t read something that we want to recommend to you, chances are we work with someone who we know has. We especially like to bounce ideas off each other when answering a readers’ advisory question.

Last Thursday afternoon, I was asked by a fellow library employee to help her select some books on CD for a car trip she was making the next day. (See, we even help each other out!) She told me that she asked me specifically because she had liked several of my staff picks and other book recommendations from this blog. She had most recently listened to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and enjoyed it. She had also liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Her typical reading tastes were for nonfiction and historical fiction.

So based on that information, here is what I recommended and a little explanation for each about why I selected it for her…

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – This is the classic nonfiction that reads like mystery fiction. It is evocative of its place and time the same way that The Devil in the White City is.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini – I thought this would touch on some of the issues of racial division that were central to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler – Historic fiction based on fact.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson – If you like one Erik Larson, you will probably like more. He is fairly consistent.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson – See above.

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain – Another historic fiction novel based on a real relationship. P.S. Apparently, it’s never easy being married to an author.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – Another read-alike for Henrietta Lacks. Although this is fiction, I thought the strength of the familial bonds of an African American family would be the similar theme here.

Run by Ann Patchett – I recently read a list of titles by Ann Patchett with descriptions and now I seriously want to read every. Single. One. This was one of the only ones I could find currently available at my location. It seems that her characters and settings can read like nonfiction. This seems to be a thinly veiled parody of the Kennedy family.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – See above. But also, this actually came up as a “Similar Title” suggestion for Henrietta Lacks in our new catalog.

The Monster of Florence: A True Story by Douglas J. Preston – Another serial killer, but this time in Italy.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – More historical fiction. If you read my blog posts, you’ve seen this more than once before. This is my favorite book from the last few years. I recommend it to EVERYONE. Whether they ask for it or not…

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – Three different individuals migrate from the south. Another story of strong African American people.

Did all of these suggestions hit the mark? Probably not. But hopefully one or two or five did. And that’s how readers’ advisory goes, where the second and third laws of library science meet. Second law of library science: Every reader his/her book. Third law of library science: Every book its reader.

Happy Readers’ Advisory to all!
-Melissa M.


Filed under Uncategorized

So You Don’t Want to Talk to Us? We Can Still Recommend a Book for You.

Often people will come to us with the question, “Can you find me a good book to read?” Of course, the answer is always yes. This aspect of our jobs is called readers’ advisory and for many of us who love books, it is the best part of our day. What could be better than matching someone up with their perfect book love?

The staff of the First Floor has recently started a new readers’ advisory project. One that allows us to guide you to books that we have personally selected, without you actually having to talk to that particular staff member. We understand that your favorite librarian isn’t always available or sometimes we are busy at the desk with other customers. We also understand that not everyone feels comfortable asking us that readers’ advisory question.

Look at all the colors! Each one is a staff person waiting to recommend books to you!

Each of us on the First Floor has been given a color. We have strips of paper in our color that say, “Name’s Pick” at the top. If you find that you like a book recommended by a certain person, all you have to do is look around for more of those slips of paper sticking out of other books in that person’s assigned hue. We will be putting these colored bookmarks in books in all areas of the First Floor, in our fiction and cookbooks in the stacks, and in the audio books on the second floor in the Film & Audio Dept. We hope to be expanding soon to include non-fiction in the stacks.

Here’s a sampling of the picks by each staff person:

Bonnie — First Blood by David Morrell

ConnieThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

HollyThe Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston

JaneDon’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk

JoanneThe Probable Future by Alice Hoffman

JohnGould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan

JudeFoxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates

KarenThe Thing About Jane Spring by Sharon Krum

MelissaMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

MiguelEmbroideries by Marjane Satrapi

Rick – American Splendor: Another Day by Harvey Pekar

RitaSaturday by Ian McEwan

SheliaMr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

TerryBel Canto by Ann Patchett

As you can see, we have quite a variety here, from teen to mystery to graphic novels. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of reading interests each of us has. I guarantee that you’ll find someone with similar reading tastes to yours and then our collection becomes your personalized jar of candy just waiting for you to pick your favorite flavor. (Or color as the case may be!)

Happy Hunting!
-Melissa M.

P.S. If you have any feedback for us about this new project, please tell one of the people on the First Floor. We’d love to hear what’s working for you and what we could be doing better. Thanks!

P.P.S. One staff person didn’t make the list above because she’s been on vacation. But most of our users already know that Georgia is a reader’s advisor extraordinaire, so be sure to look for her picks too!


Filed under Uncategorized

Faster Than a Speeding Book Review!

In librarians’ lingo, the term for helping patrons choose a book to read—Readers’ Advisory—is often referred to as RA. Librarians employ strategies and tools to help us recommend books we haven’t read ourselves.Our most enticing recommendations, though, pour from our hearts when we offer a title we know and love.

The Eleventh Stack blog provides a handy channel for enthusiastic, first-hand, written book recommendations. “I loved this book. You might too, and here’s why.”

But let me describe a kind of RA that has a different slant: eight librarians delivering one-minute introductions, one after the other, to the books we most want to share with readers.

Tomorrow, September 11, at noon in Pittsburgh’s downtown Market Square, a troupe of librarians (myself included) will dazzle listeners with an RA performance named 30 Books in 30 Minutes.

We’ll pull rabbits out of hats, flames will shoot from our fingertips, and the sun will disappear behind the moon. Or we hope you’ll think so, as we lead you swiftly beyond formulaic best sellers to a land of diverse books plucked from the shelves of our beloved Carnegie Library.

My contributions will include a 1993 novel by a local author; a biography of composer John Cage, born 100 years ago this month; a history of the delicious food fish, American shad; and a well-researched, serious yet light-hearted guide to sad songs.

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan


Novelist Clyde Edgerton said he’d rather read Lewis Nordan than find money. Nordan’s Wolf Whistle is based on a real-life murder. Somehow the author, a former University of Pittsburgh professor who passed away last year, turns this grim subject matter into a magical tale.




Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman

Reading about Cage’s creative life uplifts and inspires me. The author of this bio is not a music scholar—the narrative’s focus includes not only Cage’s music, but poetry, visual art, and philosophical influences such as Marshall McLuhen, Buckminster Fuller, and Zen Buddhism.


The Founding Fish by John McPhee

McPhee could write a thousand words about watching a tree grow and hold the reader’s attention. A 350-page book about one type of fish? You won’t want just a bite—you’ll want to eat the whole thing. Bonus tip: The “book on tape” version (actually on CD) is in McPhee’s own voice.



This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music by Adam Brent Houghtaling

Why are sad songs so appealing? Why do composer write them? This collection of short essays explores a wide range of song writers. In one of a few longer pieces, Houghtaling describes his attempt “to coalesce disparate artists separated by time and traditional genres into a new system based on emotional cues (sad is the new jazz).”





Filed under Uncategorized

Readers’ Choice

Recently I was watching the Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa. Ina Garten sent her husband Jeffrey out to shop for French wine to go along with her lovely French dinner: veal chops with Roquefort butter. Jeffrey engaged in a discussion with the wine shop owner/expert about what wine to select. He was shown the pretty labels of three bottles of wine. The potential flavors and aromas were discussed, as was the region where the grape is grown…another indicator of possible quality and taste.

Jeffrey finally chose a bottle because the label’s name included the name of Ina’s favorite open market in Paris. So, to purchase wine, you narrow the field–American, French, Italian, Australian, etc.; do you want red or white, or, to be even more specific, a special grape or growing region? Do you want something that goes well with a certain type of food? Do you want something to savor, or something for fun? Do you want sweet, dry, bubbly, or smooth? Do you want something cheap, reasonably priced, or sinfully expensive? What’s the occasion? So many decision points! But when it comes down to it, buying wine is really just a gamble. When you uncork the wine (or unscrew the lid), it could be just what you had in mind…or it could taste like vinegar.

Then it struck me: buying a wine is like picking out a book to read.

Libraries (and the lamentably endangered bookstore) really offer browsers a chance to survey the offerings. You can search with deliberate intent for something specific or you can look serendipitously to find a book that calls to you. You can see and hold a book and compare it to all the other books around you. Do you want fiction, non-fiction, biography, or some familiar–or esoteric–subject? Is the print size easy on your eyes? Book jackets may set the tone. Are they plain words or stark images, colorful landscapes, line drawings, a still life, persons or objects? The jacket also may provide a blurb or summary of the text and maybe even an expert or celebrity endorsement.

If you are in a library you may have to settle for a plain binding with no jacket information at all, especially for older, well-read books. You may look for genres you like, favorite authors, and sources for great reviews. Among the things you might hope for: quality writing, logical progression, a sense of humor, rigorous research, or an ending that makes sense. You may seek out a book that will evoke an emotion: joy, pathos, humor, peace of mind, seriousness, social conscience, action, curiosity, speculation, or intrigue. A book can make you want to learn more about information, or characters, or places, both near to home, or far, far away (sometimes even beyond reality).

Library and bookstore websites try to emulate the in-person experience. You can browse booklists, find read-alikes, explore book resources and databases like NoveList, and read professional or personal reviews. An online bookstore can track what you have purchased and suggest other titles based on that. And it’s just like selecting the wine–you don’t know what you’ll get until you try it. But here is where the online experience will never beat a library: the personal interaction with a smart, knowledgeable librarian.

A reader’s advisor in action. Original strip from Unshelved

An excellent readers’ advisory librarian can have a conversation with you and discuss your tastes and interests. They will find out what you have really liked in the past, and they will help each reader to hone in on that perfect book for a quiet weeknight or beach vacation (or class/research project!). And maybe you don’t want print, but an audio or e-book will do. Librarians promote a culture of reading, for the very young to the seasoned adult, regardless of the book’s format. If librarians don’t read a particular genre or type of book themselves, they make it their business to read and learn about books of all kinds, from classics to best-sellers. They know the reading tastes and subject interests of their colleagues who can serve as a back-up resource when they are occasionally stumped. Librarians make no value judgments about what you want to read, whether it’s for serious purposes or just for fun. The most important thing is connecting the book to the reader.

So my advice, whether you’re buying wine or just looking for something to read, is to turn to the professionals, so you don’t waste your time or money. If you are in Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh looking for a book, just “Ask A Librarian.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Trespass or Tarot?

There are lots of ways to pick your next readbooklists, databases like NoveList, reviews, conversations with friends, staff picks or asking a librarian.  Choosing what to read is a big commitment.  That book will be my bus partner, my pastime and a destination for wandering thoughts.  I want to make the perfect choice.  Put simply, I’m really picky.

I prefer to base my selection on the book alone by browsing while I shelve.  To show you what I mean, I’ll walk you through a recent browsing/shelving excursion in the New Non Fiction section, and my choice between two books: Tresspass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine or The Devil, the Lovers, and Me: My Life in Tarot by Kimberlee Auerbach. 

1.  First, a book has to make an impression with a catchy title, fascinating subject or gorgeous cover.  Both examples passed this first step.  Trespass was immediately arresting with its taboo-sounding title that references religion and its intricate woodcut-style jacket illustration of animals and a shaman-like woman overlooking a city (by artist Cathie Bleck).  The Devil, The Lovers, and Me caught my attention with its bright yellow cover overlayed with Tarot cards and paisley and its blend of memoir with the mysterious and occult. 

2.  While I may scan review blurbs on the cover  of the book for familiar authors’ names, I don’t rely on them.  No publisher would excerpt a bad review right on the book, and the quips usually abound with the same seven adjectives.  I skip the jacket description, too, because I like to discover the plot as it unfolds. 

Instead, I look to the table of contents to glean subject matter and the author’s creativity.  Both books in question use interesting thematic structures.  Irvine’s chapter titles reference archaeological terms, so the actual content remains veiled, but the metaphorical frame is alluring.  Auerbach entitles each chapter after a Tarot figure, so her book also boasts an intriguing extra dimension.

3.  So far, both books are tied.  For the final test, I read the first sentence, page or chapter.  Of all the aspects that make a good book, I value writing style most.  If the language is vivid, poetic and original, I’ll probably read it.  Here’s what Trespass offers in its prologue: 

“My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones.  There are two reasons I came here: my father’s death, and the lion man who prowled my dreams.  Perhaps it was coincidence, but a man—half wild, ravenous beyond words—slid from the dream world into the mud of the waking one the same year my father left this world for another.” 

Personification of the land? Bones?  Feral dream men?  I’m sold. 

The Devil, the Lovers, and Me, didn’t stand up quite as well: 

Cement lions.  I’m a Leo.  It’s a sign! . . . Apartment #9.  Nine is my favorite number!  I push the button, and she buzzes me in a second later without asking my name.  Of course.  She’s clairvoyant.  Or the intercom is broken.  What if the intercom is broken?  What if she lets anybody in?  What if the man on the street comes in after me?  Calm down.  There are lions.  There’s the #9.”

While it introduces a similar mysticism, the writing is much more casual, which can make for compelling tension, but exclamation points make me skeptical. 

In the end, I checked out both books.  One chapter into The Devil, the Lovers, and Me, however, I returned the book because the premise wasn’t enough to hold my attention over the less captivating writing.  I’m still reading Trespass, though–and enjoying it.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reading Rut

I know, it’s hard to believe.  I work in a library, surrounded by books, inspired daily, blah blah blah.  Cabin fever has set in and lately I can’t seem to stay very attentive for more than five minutes.  Every time this happens, I find immediate mitigation from a short story collection.  A few weeks ago I started reading The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith.  Teeming with some of my favorite contemporary authors, it turns out Jonathan Lethem and Miranda July were just what I needed to get out of my reading rut. 

One of the really great features the Library’s website offers is book reviews from real live library workers!  From cookbooks to poetry, there is absolutely something for every reader’s taste.  Databases such as Novelist allow you to explore recommendations by using keyword, title and author searches.  Try searching a title you’ve recently enjoyed and find similar books.

If you consider yourself to be more of an adventurous patron, you should become acquainted with Readers’ Advisory.  This term really just means connecting people to books they’ll like.  A service that’s sometimes overlooked in the library, patrons can simply ask librarians to recommend a book to them.  The typical Readers’ Advisory question is conducted in a loose interview format.  Basically, we’ll ask you questions about the kind of books or genres that interest you, what you like about them and what authors you enjoy.  Can’t get to the library?  Get a book recommendation by emailing us! 

– Lisa

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized