Patrons at the Public Library of Brookline (MA) now have an engaging new way to learn about the most recommended items in circulation, thanks to reference and teen librarian Robin Brenner: An “Awesome Box” in the shape of a half-size TARDIS, Doctor Who’s sentient spaceship.
Though several other libraries in the state have introduced the Awesome Box project to their branches in recent months—including Somerville, Cambridge, and Arlington—Brenner and her colleagues have taken it to the next level with an eye-catching design and clever online marketing, generating lots of positive patron feedback and online buzz in the very first days after Brookline began participating.
Since its debut early last week, “we’ve already had a number of people use it, which is very exciting,” Brenner tells School Library Journal. “There’s nothing that quite beats people walking into the library with a big grin on their face when they see it, and walking over to our display which explains what it is and why we have a TARDIS in the library.”
As any Doctor Who fan—like Brenner—knows, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) disguises itself as a blue British police call box, though it is vastly bigger on the inside. Similarly, an “Awesome Box,” TARDIS-shaped or not, stuffs a universe of ideas into a tiny package. When patrons particularly enjoy items they have checked out, they drop them in the box rather than at the returns desk. Staff scan the items twice, once to check them back into the library’s collection and the other to add them to the “Awesome Box” webpage, where all the community’s selections are stored.
The “Awesome Box” concept, created by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, first popped up on Brenner’s radar more than a year ago, but it took a presentation over the summer at a local conference on innovative technology to really set things in motion at Brookline, she explains. During that event, the founders of the “Awesome Box” concept shared their progress so far in establishing a website and streamlining the participation process. “I was excited because it was even easier than it originally seemed,” Brenner says. “All we had to do was sign up for an account.”
Once a library signs up on the site, they gain access to a control panel for them to populate their own “Awesome Box” page by pulling circulation items’ records directly from WorldCat, Brenner says.
Brenner wrote a proposal for the project to Brookline’s library administration, which got on board immediately, although it took time to answer all the practical questions—how large a receptacle was needed, who would build it, where would it live in the library, and what would it look like.
For Brenner—who is also the creator/editor in chief of the No Flying, No Tights graphic novel review site—modeling the box on the TARDIS was a no-brainer. Inspired by the 50th anniversary of the British television series; the many staffers and teen and adult patrons of Brookline that are fans of the show; “and the undeniable fun of having a blue box of our very own,” she set out to find plans online for TARDIS decorations. She also discovered, fortuitously, detailed plans for building a replica.
Though content to paint a simple cardboard box if necessary, Brenner and her staff began to dream a little bigger, she says, once Brookline’s head custodian, T.J. Mattimoe, volunteered to try to build one. To the “nerdy” delight of the librarians, Brenner says, Mattimoe, a carpenter, was actually able to create a half-size wooden TARDIS replica—at no cost to Brookline—using discarded wood and other materials recycled from various town projects. The finished replica includes a slot for the returned materials and even rests on a little platform on wheels so it could be moved around the library.
Custodians Mike Malone and Frank Hickey aided Mattimoe in the construction, Brenner says, calling the three staffers “amazing,” “fantastic,” and “magnificent.”
Brenner herself, with the help of staffer Meagan Parker, painted the replica and completed its lettering with a few quotes from the series—some of the same pro-library quotes that Brookline has been using on promotional buttons recently. “We just went nuts,” she jokes.
Brenner stresses that the box is intended for all library patrons, not just teens, though she says her experience as a teen librarian did come in handy in the planning process and in the outreach that has followed. “I think we had more of an idea of how to make it fun and distinctive,” she says of her colleagues. And once the box was complete, Brenner crafted a Tumblr blog post to her patrons, along with an announcement to various professional librarian listservs, announcing its arrival.
“Doctor Who is a show that has championed education, libraries, and learning throughout its run, and is undoubtedly awesome, so how could we resist?” Brenner tells patrons who might be unfamiliar with the TARDIS on her blog. She also assures the community that any selection they make for the box doesn’t “have to be high art or the best book you’ve read all year, it just has to be awesome, however you define the word.”
Her efforts are paying off. In just its first couple of days, Brookline’s version of the project got a lot more attention that even Brenner had expected, from both inside and outside the local community, helping to publicize the concept even though they were not the first library branch to adopt it.
“We have a number of librarians who are very aware of the social media and online reputation of the library, so all of us agreed at once that this would be a good thing to do,” Brenner tells SLJ. Still, the extent of the positive reaction “was kind of startling,” she admits. “I knew people would be excited about it just because it’s Doctor Who, but I talked to many librarians who hadn’t heard of [the concept] before.”
Harvard Library Innovation Lab, meanwhile, “got deluged, honestly,” Brenner notes. “I had many, many librarians asking me about it, and many of them were contacting [Harvard]. I know they’re excited.” In fact, staffers there, she says, told her, “This is great! We want more people to do it.”