December 2018 | Volume XXXVI. Issue 6 »

Book Box: How a Cardboard Box Became our Trendiest Teen Program

November 29, 2018
Ridgeway Burns, Melisa Martinez, and Karen Keefe, Hinsdale Public Library


How does a public library serve a time-crunched, option-rich, high-achieving group of teens? One perfectly packaged book at a time.

When Youth and Young Adult Librarian Melisa Martinez was searching for new ways to connect with busy readers, she had to look no farther than her own front porch. She and her coworkers were outsourcing the selection of some of their must-have products to subscription services. Would suburban teens take a chance on a “Book Box” modeled on well-designed, custom packages from companies like Blue Apron, Owlcrate, and Stitch Fix?

Not only did they take a chance—they loved it, surpassing expectations and increasing “subscriptions” 200% in the first 18 months. And their moms and little siblings loved it, too—so much so that one year later the library launched “Book Box Jr” for kids and “HPL Book Box” for adults.


Hinsdale is an affluent community 20 miles west of Chicago. A town of 16,800 with a 2016 average household income of $264,672, Hinsdale was named America’s 30th “Richest Place” by Bloomberg in 2018. The closest public high school, Hinsdale Central, was ranked #13 in Illinois and #489 in nationally last year by US News and World Report. The Book Box program can be implemented in libraries with much smaller budgets, though; its strength is in its creative approach rather than a great deal of financial investment.

A challenge for Hinsdale Public Library is that many Hinsdale teens have the means to purchase recreational reading materials on-demand. What they don’t have is a lot of time to explore what that next great read should look like. As a report from The Carsey School of Public Policy points out, “students in higher-income families are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities than their peers in lower income families.”

Almost all libraries also compete with after school jobs, long travel times, and responsibilities at home for teens’ time and attention. With a few tweaks, libraries of any size or budget can create a program that personalizes book (or movie, music... even video game) recommendations and makes the “reveal” part of the appeal.

When Hinsdale Public Library staff were looking for a way to offer bespoke book recommendations to highly-scheduled teens, they took a page from subscription boxes like Birchbox. Martinez created a prototype “Book Box” that would include a hand-selected book, surrounded by goodies and packaged in an attractive, well-branded box.

Once she had the green light for the project, she consulted with the library’s Marketing and Outreach Manager, Molly Castor, on presentation. The library worked with Packlane to produce sturdy, colorful boxes that complement the library’s logo.

Martinez and Youth and Young Adult Services Manager Ridgeway Burns agreed that one way the library’s Book Boxes would be different from other subscription services was that they wouldn’t be delivered. Teens would come to the library during an assigned date range to pick up their box. They would be responsible for returning the box and book, too.

Burns decided to fund this initiative from the department’s programming budget. He rationalized this decision by explaining that participants have a shared library experience every month— they just aren’t all experiencing it in the same physical space. The library would, whenever possible, use books that were already part of the collection. So, program costs would be limited to boxes, crinkly protective filler, and the little themed tchotchkes that readers get to keep.

At first, the Book Box started off with a choice of four genres for teens and a capacity of twelve. A sample box and a photo of a completed box were all the publicity the program needed to get off the ground. Library staff promoted the program at school visits and in the print newsletter. Word of mouth about the Book Box spread quickly amongst teens and parents. By the next quarter, registration for the Teen Book Box filled up quickly and additional capacity was needed. In the ensuing months, the library added Book Boxes for adults and younger readers in grades 4–5.


Inside each box are non-perishable treats like candy or tea, bookmarks or stationery (branded with the Library logo, when possible), brightly colored packing materials to cushion each title, a response card, and the book selected for the patron.

The monthly cost per Book Box averages around $4 including the boxes themselves, the packing material, treats, and 2 to 3 small trinkets. Add-ins range from Oriental Trading Company- style erasers and figurines to candy and tea.

The custom boxes from Packlane cost an average of $3/box. Boxes can circulate about six times before they need to be retired. It will come as no surprise to parents or children’s librarians, boxes circulated to younger kids do not last as long as boxes circulated to adults and teens.

Each “subscription” cycle lasts for three months. During peak times like summer, one-month-only “Book Box Samplers” have helped meet demand.

When registering, patrons indicate their preferred genres and a couple of their favorite books. Genres include mystery/thriller; horror; fantasy; science fiction; historical fiction, romance; literary fiction; biography; self-help and more. Choosing the right title for each Book Box can be an involved process just like in-person reader’s advisory. Starting with the two genres and favorite books each patron provides at signup, library staff collaborate with subject area experts to identify titles that will match the patron’s interest.

Any library that has hard-to-reach readers can scale a program like HPL’s Book Box to engage with patrons they may not otherwise be able to meet. Butcher paper and string can stand in for custom boxes and a fun bookmark or repurposed storytime craft can replace candy or an inexpensive toy.

Adult patrons have appreciated having an option to request that the titles chosen for them do not contain topics such as physical abuse, animal death, or excessive profanity.

After reading each month’s selection, recipients fill out the response card included in every box, rate the title they were given from 1 to 5 stars, and share any comments. This helps library staff build a profile for each reader. These interactions with patrons have allowed selectors to not only pick a good book for that reader’s Book Box but also to build out collections that better serve the library’s power users.

Readers have enthusiastically embraced the Book Box. Over 90 patrons received boxes in June and July. The Teen Book Box is one of the most popular services the Library has ever offered for teens and has been a great way for passionate staff to connect with the “power readers” in the community. Patrons have been very loyal users of the Book Box: 6 teens have been signed up since the inception of the Teen Book Box two years ago.

Though similar to previous reader’s advisory services, the Book Box has found a niche by presenting a traditional service in a fresh format.


So, why did this stick when so many other recommendation services quickly fizzle out? Zuora founder Tien Tzuo would say it’s because we are entering the “Subscription Economy,” a model that seems to have gone from fad to fixture overnight. According to a March 2018 Forbes article, “The subscription e-commerce market has grown by more than 100% percent a year over the past five years, with the largest retailers generating more than $2.6B in sales in 2016, up from $57.0M in 2011.”

Book Boxes combine the best of retail subscriptions and monthly rental or streaming services. Patrons receive a hand-picked item that comes in beautiful box, that they open to reveal other small items selected to surprise and delight them. And, by borrowing the book rather than purchasing it, readers have all the benefits of access without the burden of ownership.

In Tien Tzou’s Subscribed: Why the Subscription Model Will Be Your Company’s Future—and What to Do About It, he writes about his early days at Salesforce,

We had to reevaluate the whole purpose of a software company, changing the fundamental question from “How many products can I sell?” to “What does my customer want, and how can I deliver that as an intuitive service?” (Tzou, 5)

Subscription services are built on recurring interactions with users and the opportunity to tailor services or product offerings to them based on use and feedback. As so many industries, libraries included, are shifting from counting products sold (checked out, in our case) to experiences had, the Instagram-able experience of discovering a great new read is the perfect fit for a 21st century library.

This subscription service is also a smart fit for teens. In Subscribed, Tzou writes, “The Amazon versus Walmart battle has been framed as ecommerce versus traditional retail, but that’s always been a false dichotomy. It’s about starting with the customer instead of the product. It’s about establishing ongoing relationships. It’s about flipping the script—starting with the digital experience, and then building the store.” (Tzou, 26)

It can be tough to establish relationships with teen readers. There are the logistical issues of school, sports, work and socializing. And then there are the developmental obstacles of connecting with readers who are in a near constant state of transition. Subscriptions allow teen readers to identify their interests in isolation and then choose how much to share about their reading experience on their own terms.

Subscriptions and libraries are, obviously, not a new thing. Subscription libraries, like Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, were the precursor to the public libraries we enjoy today. Our periodical and database collections are subscriptions we maintain on behalf of our users. What is new is an audience that prioritizes and expects custom content and memorable, camera-ready experiences. New subscription models, like Book Box, create a recurring experience with readers that demonstrates high quality curation and uses feedback to continuously improve the appeal of the delivered product. Subscription services are a smart, scalable way to match the best of hands-on librarianship with an audience primed to expect personalized services and product selection.


Columbus, L. (2018, March 04). The State Of The Subscription Economy, 2018. Retrieved from the-state-of-the-subscription-economy-2018/#57a8eb6253ef

Tzuo, T., & Weisert, G. (2018). Subscribed: Why the subscription model will be your company’s future—and what to do about it.

Leonard, S. E. (2017, Spring). After the Bell Youth Activity Engagement in Relation to Income and Metropolitan Status. Carsey Research, 121, 1. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from

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