Subscription Bundles for Kids

Long before the covid pandemic, books have been a core part of library services. Getting those books into the hands of kids and families while the physical building has been closed has been a challenge. My library decided to try a service that many libraries already offer in some capacity: subscription bundles.

Subscription bundles are similar to the concept of a subscription box (except free and no box). Readers fill out an online form and library staff pull 5-8 books for them, based on age and interests, each month for three months (with the option to renew).

The concept is simple, and the reader’s advisory work can be a lot of fun too. You are limited by what is on the shelves at the time, but you aren’t rushed by a grown-up who only has a few minutes in the library. You can promote different kinds of materials a family may not always consider (or find)–graphic novels, nonfiction, and more. And there is a small benefit of sometimes being able to squeeze into a bundle an on-topic book that is a hard sell in person–but a kid might give it a try when they are looking at it on their own.

Subscription Bundle Form

Families sign-up for the subscription bundle service by filling out a Google form found on our website. The public-facing description of this service, crafted by our marketing department, is:

Spend more time reading, and less time choosing! Let your favorite Westerville librarians bundle together 5-8 books for you each month, based on your interests. For ages 0-18

You’ll receive an email when your bundle is ready to pick up at the drive-thru. (After 3 months, you’ll have the option to continue your subscription.)

Our website directs people to our Google form:

The questions on the form include:

  • Email Address
  • First and Last Name
  • Recipient’s Name (if not you)
  • Library Card Number
  • Recipient’s Age (changed from an initial grade range)
  • Tell us about 3 things the recipient is interested in. (Examples: trains, dinosaurs, fairy tales, comics, mysteries, favorite authors, series, etc.) 
  • Is there anything else you’d like us to know? (Optional: book you enjoyed recently (or didn’t), reading level, etc.)

The form has stayed the same for the last few months with a few small updates including an increased time frame of expecting your bundle to be ready in 5 days (started at 3 days) and a change to the age question. Initially, this question had been a drop down based on grade (Baby/Toddler, PreS, K-3, 4-6, Middle School, Teen). This worked for most age ranges, but the K-3 age range could be particularly tricky, since the books a Kindergartener may want to read or have read to them can be very different than the books a 3rd grader is looking for. So, we changed this to a fill-in-the-blank general age question.

Subscription Bundle Organization

This is where things can get tricky, particularly at the incredibly high volume we are operating at.

The Google form populates a spreadsheet of responses. The spreadsheet looks a bit like this. (Columns with any patron identifying information are hidden. Filter is only on to highlight bundles I’ve personally filled.)

The left part of the spreadsheet contains the rest of the columns that match the form–date the form was submitted, email address, recipient’s name, library card, etc.

We fill in the columns starting with “Bundle 1 Staff Member.” Each round of bundles has its own set of columns, including:

  • Bundle 3: Staff Name (the staff member who took the bundle)
  • Bundle 3: Date (the date the bundle is supposed to be filled)
  • Bundle 3: Books (books pulled for that bundle)
  • Done: Initials of staff member who processed the bundle and took its contents to the drive thru
  • Bundle 3: Email Sent? (labeled when an email is sent the next morning to the people whose bundles were filled)

You may have noticed that, unless you cancel or don’t pick up two bundles, families are automatically set to receive three bundles, and then they can renew for an additional three months (and so on). This makes for a very long spreadsheet.

Since part of the perk of a bundle is to make sure a child doesn’t receive the same books twice, we don’t want to delete old columns or start a new spreadsheet for renewals (since that means more places to check for titles that were shared before). And we can’t hide columns that aren’t as necessary later (such as the name of the staff member who filled the first bundle when you are filling bundle four, because, at the very bottom of the spreadsheet, new forms are being filled out–meaning some people on the spreadsheet haven’t received any bundles yet.

I do wonder if there is a way to streamline this a bit more–maybe with a tab based system? Maybe bundles could be moved to a new tab when they move on to bundle 2 or bundle 3–that might allow for some columns to be hidden for bundles farther down the renewal process, while still allowing first bundles to be added to the original tab. That would involve checking more places, but they would all still be in one spreadsheet–and we still have to scroll a ton to check each column when we are receiving a mix of bundle 1, 2, 3, and 4’s to fill each day. (Sorry if that didn’t make sense–figuring out a way to make this process flow a little smoother still flummoxes me).

Keeping Track of Bundles

There is another step here as well. The spreadsheet doesn’t auto-populate bundle 2 and bundle 3 dates, and we had quite a rush of bundle form submissions over the course of just one week in early January. Those renewals have since been spread out using our Google Calendar.

Whenever we fill a first bundle, we also create an appointment on our department’s Google Calendar. This lets us see (and print out) a list of all of the bundles to be filled on a particular day. This looks a little like the image below (much of it is blurred because of kids names).

During pandemic hours, we are closed on Sundays,
and we moved bundles off of Saturdays due to how many other responsibilities we have on those days.

Our manager works on assigning bundles to various days to spread out the workload.

For many of us, our first step for the day is adding the dates for bundles to be filled that day to the spreadsheet for easier searching. This isn’t a permanent part of the routine, but for myself and many of my coworkers, we’ve found it really useful to see those dates in the spreadsheet too instead of having to look back and forth between the calendar and the spreadsheet multiple times a day.

Cancellations, Renewals, and No Shows…Oh my.

There are many more components to this service too including:

  • keeping track of patrons who have chosen to cancel their subscription
  • keeping track of patrons who failed to pick up their bundle repeatedly
  • asking if patrons want to renew their bundle after their first three months are up

My manager has been keeping track of all of these moving parts in separate spreadsheets.

Subscription Bundle Creation

A few hundred words later, and I haven’t actually talked about making a bundle yet! Each bundle takes time–I’d estimate about 20-30 minutes each from start to finish. Sometimes more, sometimes less–more if someone has particularly nuanced requests, and you can’t select books used in the last 2-3 bundles; less if someone more generally wants “series for third graders.”

Filling a Bundle:

  1. Look at the calendar and spreadsheet for bundles assigned to that day. Type your name in the appropriate “Staff Name” column for any bundles you are claiming.
  2. Look at the reported age and interests, as well as previously selected books if this is a bundle that has been filled previously. Either use the catalog or walk the shelves to find 5-8 books that fit those interests that haven’t been given to this person before.
    *To save time, I’ve been intentionally picking bundles that are for a similar age range and interests, if possible. For example, if there are 30 bundles that day, and 6 kids say they want Dog Man readalikes, I start by claiming all of those bundles. This lets me sweep the shelves for anything that applies, divide them up by kid, and then look for more specific titles to flesh out remaining gaps. This has also helped me from “competing” with my fellow coworkers for titles–if we are all looking for the one “available” copy of the newest InvestiGATORS book, only one of us will find it, and the rest will need to find a new book to fill our bundle.
  3. Once I’ve found all of my books (and sorted them by kid), I type the titles of the books into the Google Spreadsheet column for that bundle’s books. I double check that anything I pulled wasn’t used before.
  4. At this point, if this is the first bundle, I add appointments to the Google Calendar for the next two bundles.
  5. At a service point with access to our ILS, I put the books on hold for the appropriate library card. There may be some rearranging if a book I pulled off the shelf is on hold for another patron.
  6. After putting the books on hold, I check them in, processing hold slips for each book.
  7. Books are bundled together using a H-band. Shortest in the front for easiest check out at the drive thru window.
  8. If this is a first bundle, the bundle gets a manila envelope with some goodies–a bookmark, a sticker, a library flyer, and more.
  9. Whether this is a first bundle or a later bundle, a card is added to the front of the pile with the recipient’s name.


Our bundles are secured with H bands. These four-way rubber bands work well for holding big stacks of books together.

These Amazon ones are more brightly colored, but they can be a bit floppy depending the size of the stack you are filling. (See the lack of fit over the smaller, thinner first chapter books.)

These DEMCO H bands fit better to essentially any size stack of materials, but they do have a different texture that I’m not personally a fan of.

Giant rubber bands have also worked in a pinch when we run out of h bands. We don’t ask patrons to return the h bands, though they sometimes do.

Subscription Cards:

Each bundle comes with a subscription card taped to the top book. These have room for us to write the recipient’s name:

These were designed, printed, and cut by our amazing marketing department.

Bundle Contents:

What kind of books might make it into a bundle? There are some pictures above, but I’ve also pulled some title lists of bundles that I’ve created over the last few months. I aim for the same selection principles I use for my book talks — a variety of types of materials, some easier and some harder, and lots of diversity, but I’m also trying to meet each child’s needs and interests with what we have on the shelf at that moment. This can make some bundles frustrating to pull when all of my favorite books are checked out!

  • 18 months. Board books, lift the flap, really any topic.
    • Where’s the Unicorn? (Arrhenius)
    • Never Touch a Tiger
    • Where is the Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle)
    • Baby’s Big Busy Book (Katz)
    • What Is Baby Going to Do?
    • Baby Faces Peekaboo?
    • Let’s Find the Kitten
    • Pop-Up Peekaboo Pumpkin
  • 2nd Grade: Comics, Robots (Big Hero 6), Science
    • Baloney and Friends
    • Sadiq and the Bridge Builders
    • Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot (Pilkey)
    • Big Hero 6 (graphic novel)
    • Hilo The Boy Who Crashed to Earth
    • Cat Kid Comic Club
    • Krypto the Superdog Here Comes Krypto
    • Max Axiom: Volcanoes
  • Grades 4-6. Dogman, Sports, Cars, Hilo, Minecraft. Reluctant reader.
    • Investigators Take the Plunge
    • Geronimo Stilton: Sewer Rat Stink
    • Bird and Squirrel: On the Run
    • Time Museum
    • Pacey Packer Unicorn Tracker
    • Agent Moose
    • Monster Mayhem
    • Drew and Jot
  • Teen. War, Magic/Fantasy, Space.
    • Illuminae
    • Mechanica
    • The Circle
    • Scythe
    • Rebel Rose
    • Poisoned

Tips and Advice

Ah, the hardest part of this to write, buried at the bottom of an already lengthy post.

First, the pros:

  • Subscription bundles are very popular at my library. We have had over 500 bundles to fill in one month.
  • During a time when people cannot or may not want to come into the library, this is a great way to get books into kids’ hands.
  • Circulation numbers are high!
  • Great books that aren’t always picked up can be sent home in bundles and given a chance at circulating.
  • I see the caregiver appeal, even outside of the pandemic. This is a great service for grown-ups-on-the-go with busy schedules, and for caregivers who simply can’t make it to the library regularly, especially bringing one or more kids in tow. There is a convenience to this service that can’t be beat.
  • The patron feedback is overwhelmingly positive. There is more positive feedback for bundles than many other services we offer.

Then, the cons:

  • Subscription bundles are very popular at my library. We have had over 500 bundles to fill in one month.
  • During this intermediary time, when the public is allowed back in the library but we are doing our best to stay away from them, pulling bundles is tough, since patrons get first use of the shelves.
  • Pulling bundles is time consuming. Selecting books for a child and all of the necessary processing can take 20-30 minutes per kid. Sometimes more (and sometimes less). In an effort to move through 30-40 bundles in a day, I sometimes find myself having to sacrifice finding the “perfect” book for a kid in place of finding something that is sort of related to their interests, simply because I don’t have enough time in a day to fill this many bundles and cover the rest of my responsibilities.
  • Long term, I wonder how this will affect weeding. We weed based on circulation numbers (and other criteria, but circulation is a big part). There are some books that I see get selected for bundles that are a bit dated and grungy looking, and that I know haven’t circulated on their own in a year or more. Will weeding stats still reflect kids’ interests if we are “forcing” (not the right word) them to check out books they wouldn’t have checked out otherwise? How will this reflect in physical space on our shelves in a few years?
  • Due to the popularity and patron feedback, subscription bundles can become what feels like the “most-important service” instead of one of many that serve different needs.

Before starting a subscription bundle service, here are some questions to ask:

  • Do you have the staffing to select, pull, and process bundles? If so, how many bundles can your staff reasonably do in a day while not detracting from other duties? If your staff doesn’t have the time to do each step of that process, is there a way to remove one or more steps to make the process easier? Do you need to set a cap on this service?
  • How does this fit in with what else you currently offer or don’t offer? There are some similarities in this service to teacher collections. Is there a way to merge the two?
  • Do you want this to be a subscription service? Do you have the long-term staffing to handle that? Do you have the current staffing to handle the additional organizational components of a subscription service–processing renewals, recording cancellations, scheduling future bundles?
  • What will your response be to families who want this service to be more frequent than your interval of choice? For example, each family gets a new bundle each month, but we have had many requests for us to pull new bundles for a family on a weekly or biweekly basis.
  • Where will people pick up their bundles? Do you have the physical space to put these bundles on holds shelves? What is the capacity of your physical space?
  • Who will handle cancellations? If your circulation staff normally processes cancelled holds, can they handle the increase in cancelled items created by this service?
  • Is there a way to make this service more accessible? For example, our service requires you to fill out a form online. You could call us, and we could fill out the form for you, but do people know that? For us, people have to pick up books at our physical location (for now anyway–schools might be an option long term). Can these bundles be picked up at other service points? Related–how easy is it for people in your community to get the library card required for sign-up?

Now, I’m going to be blunt. But, I also think you *really* have to be committed to this service to have read this far down the post, so if you have put the time in, you deserve to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Subscription bundles are great. Families love them. In small does, I love them. I love reader’s advisory, and I love picking out the perfect books for a child. More books check out than ever before. Our service are more convenient than ever before.

At the same time, my biggest pro and con for this service is what my particular library experienced: we got a little bit of social media promotion from some happy families, and we have been filling over 500 bundles a month. That means, in a month like February, we pulled at least 3000 books for patrons (estimating 6 books out of 5-8, though most bundles include 8 books). If each bundle takes 25 minutes (average) to work through all of the steps of selection and processing, we spent, as a staff, at least 200 hours pulling and processing bundles (in perspective, with four 40 hour weeks in a month, one person works about 160 hours a month).

We are lucky to have a very large staff, but with many hours work from home to accommodate social distancing, reopening to the public, desk and customer service hours, full programming schedules, and more–this has been tough. It makes work days even more exhausting, during a period of peak stress as we all adjusted to the library building being available to the public again, many personal questions about vaccines, and the reintroduction of services (or even just conversations around reintroduction of services), all on top of everything we have added to our plates since the pandemic began.

Bundles are great when everyone has time to handle the workload. Before starting something like this, really think about what you and your staff have time (and mental capacity) for. Maybe you need to set a cap–only 100 bundles at a time, with a waiting list of additional participants. Maybe you need to evaluate how to make each step of the process take less time by not getting quite this elaborate. Plan a way to back out if needed. Subscription bundles are a fantastic service–but make sure to be wary of the time and logistics before committing.

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