Book Bundles Reimagine the Public Library Browsing Experience

With most patrons still unable to browse the stacks, public librarians are finding creative ways to provide the experience of serendipitous discovery through book bundles and grab bags.

Bags of books
Book bundles at the Robbins Library, Arlington, MA
Photo by Marie Cannon

Though virtual programming, electronic materials, curbside pickup, and reference services allow patrons to access public libraries remotely during COVID-19 pandemic building closures and restrictions, many readers miss browsing the stacks. While it’s not the same, libraries are finding creative ways to provide the experience of serendipitous discovery through book bundles and grab bags.

Patrons fill out a form, send an email, or call, indicating the kinds of book they enjoy. Librarians then put together a package of books, often five to 10 items but sometimes as many as 20 or 30, and patrons are alerted to pick up their bundle.

At the Coronado Public Library (CPL), CA, patrons email a librarian with a preferred genre or the name of a book or author they recently enjoyed. Teen librarian Tara Davies said, “Sometimes requests are vague like ‘something funny’ or as specific as ‘a mystery like Louise Penny but not Louise Penny because I’ve read all her books.’”

For Davies, book bundles have made readers’ advisory (RA) more freeing. “Since the patrons are not right in front of me desiring an immediate answer, I feel I have more time to consult different resources to find the most suitable read-alikes or the latest titles within a genre.”

Other librarians, however, are finding their RA skills stretched. At the Madison Public Library (MPL), WI, initially staffers were stricter about meeting patrons’ specifications, but that proved time-consuming. So the library pivoted to two options: a detailed request, where readers can ask for fiction, nonfiction, memoirs/biographies, or graphic novels, among other choices, or a grab bag, where patrons indicate only age level (child, teen, or adult).

Because grab bags are so general, it’s easier for MPL staffers to put them together quickly. Librarian Kathy Wolkoff said that patrons can obtain more titles but they have less control. “You can get 30 picture books if you want, but you can’t tell us they have to be about trains and dinosaurs and nothing too scary, because we can’t pull that many books and make sure they fit that criteria.” Wolkoff compares grab bags to community supported agriculture boxes, or subscriptions to organic, local produce: “You might get some vegetables you don’t like very much, you might get some beets or fennel.”

Bag and piles of books.
Assembled book bundles at the Bethlehem Public Library, Delmar, NY
Photo courtesy of Kristen Roberts, Public Information Specialist

Assembling such bundles also allows librarians to become more familiar with their own collection. Before the pandemic, most adult services librarians at the Robbins Library, Arlington, MA, didn’t spend much time browsing the stacks, but that changed with the book bundling service, developed primarily by Marie Cannon, head of circulation. Pam Watts-Flavin, head of children’s services, said, “Usually I give a new hire a couple of days to wander around, look at the collection.” But now, she can put the employee on grab bag duty. “It’s like a deep dive.”

Librarians are also learning how to make the collection more user-friendly when browsing is allowed again. Linda Dyndiuk, head of adult services at the Robbins Library, observes that it can be hard to tell which books are fantasies just by looking, so staffers have started adding stickers to distinguish those titles. “I feel bad that we weren’t doing it before, because it’s got to be annoying for patrons who are looking for fantasy, too.”

Librarian Sarah Morrison said the North Olympic Library System (NOLS), Port Angeles, WA, has begun offering Spanish-language titles, and it, like many libraries, allows patrons to request DVDs or CDs.

Christine McGinty, assistant director of public services at the Bethlehem Public Library (BPL), Delmar, NY, said, “We are heavily involved with our local schools and have had teachers requesting specific titles for classroom use or multiple copies of specific titles.” The result was an educator’s bundle, which McGinty hopes will also help parents who are homeschooling their kids or supervising students learning virtually.

BPL offers optional add-ons, too, such as a copy of the book review publication BookPage in bundles for adults, crafts in those aimed at children, and a packet with songs, fingerplays, tips for caregivers, and more in story time bundles.

Book bundles and grab bags also provide the opportunity to market the library’s other services. At the Robbins Library, bundles sometimes include bookmarks and flyers listing new books or describing recent initiatives such as the circulation of Chromebooks.

Several months in, librarians have learned a few tips. CPL originally had no deadline for patrons to pick up their bundles. “After a bundle or two sat untouched for a couple weeks, we decided if they were not picked up within a week, the books would be reshelved, just like a regular hold,” said Davies.

Initially, when NOLS staffers created a grab bag, they put all 10 items on hold, which, with their ILS, was time-consuming. Now, they use empty DVD cases as grab bag placeholders.

Most libraries don’t keep track of what books they check out to patrons as part of the bundles, so patrons might get the same book more than once. Davies said, “If the library allows internal record keeping for patron checkouts, I might suggest keeping a spreadsheet of what books are given to which patrons.”

The service has proved popular at most institutions. At BPL, between mid-July and the end of November, 952 bundles were circulated. “That’s 9,520 books we checked out and got into the hands of our patrons,” said McGinty. Though the Robbins Library isn't open to browsers, Cannon said that the number of books circulated between September and November of 2020 was similar to those checked out between that same period in 2019—something she credits to the use of grab bags.  

Watts-Flavin noted that patrons leave messages on returned grab bags thanking librarians; caregivers and parents, many of whom are at home all day with kids because of the pandemic, are especially grateful.

Davies said, “Patrons have told me they enjoyed how the bundles have diversified their reading, encouraging them to read titles or authors they might have otherwise overlooked.”

Added Wolkoff, “That’s why a lot of us are librarians, because we want to connect people with books. It takes us back to the foundation of what we do and why we do it.”

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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