Libraries Unlocking Creativity

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by Steve Zalusky

Libraries have gained a reputation as places of escape for many.  Recently, libraries have been encouraging their patrons to engage in a different form of escape.

Libraries are utilizing the concept of “escape rooms” to inspire patrons and tap their creativity by converting library spaces into arenas for collaborative gaming and problem solving. And in college libraries, they are even used as tools to teach students how to use the library for research.

An escape room, as described on the site of the University of North Texas Digital Library, is “an immersive, real-life gaming experience where participants are given a role in a story, and must solve a series of puzzles to accomplish a goal and escape the room. Escape rooms require players to interact with elements within a room to reveal hidden information in a string of puzzles, and to solve each within a set timeframe to succeed.”

Everything is fair game for clues, which can be hidden in posters and paintings in the library.  The University of North Texas libraries offers an escape room as part of its orientation for freshmen, called "First Flight."  Media librarian Diane Robson said her library ran gaming events prior to initiating the escape room, but “Our next step was to do something a little more immersive and engaging for our freshmen coming in, where they have to work collaboratively as a group.”

The students find themselves in a room, where they have to find clues that will lead to the final door code that causes a buzzer that goes off on a device that receives a number.  The intention was to get the students to learn how to use the library’s resources in their academic work.

“Our goal for this as a library literacy escape room was to get them really engaged, working together and using the library catalog and using resources you would find in a library,” she said, adding that the room has a reference librarian in it as one of the props.

“We want them to feel comfortable going to that person. We want them to see that person sitting there to be just as helpful as the book they are looking for or the video or whatever they are using for research,” she said.

The First Flight escape room exercise had the students complete a project left for them to finish. They achieve their goal by meeting with a librarian in a particular subject and then unlocking boxes by figuring out clues, which can be found on business cards with the names and caricatures of individual librarians.

After receiving a scenario (some were related to the history of North Texas), they entered the room, where all they saw was a backpack sitting on the floor. Inside was a sheet of paper that talks about the assignment and some of the things that they would need to look up. Also contained was a planner listing an appointment with a reference librarian. After that ensued a process of opening a series of boxes until the liberating buzzer clue is discovered.

One assignment, she said, had students assigned to find a Nirvana songbook in the library catalog, starting with the guitar chords for the song.

Public libraries are also embracing the concept. In an area outside Atlanta, at the Cobb County Public Library System, on June 15, teams will have 30 minutes to solve challenging escape room puzzles.

Beth Baldwin, adult services librarian at Cobb County, sees escape rooms as a way to bring people into the library who might not visit regularly.  “We’re trying to attract different crowds than what we normally have,” she said.

June’s program, she hopes, will serve as the prelude to an even bigger event in October.One audience she is trying to attract is teens, she said.  The escape room scenario for Cobb is that the library has been attacked by people who don’t like the library.

She said, “They’re anti-librarian. They want to burn books, that kind of attitude.”

On the downstairs level of the library, the anti-library forces will be holding people hostage. Upstairs, participants will be trying to figure out a way to get out of the library and notify officials about the situation.

Librarians will lead them to clues that will enable them to find the numbers that will activate a key.  “One of the clues is going to lead them to a balloon that they will have to pop to get the last combination to the key,” she said.

Escape rooms are being increasingly used by libraries, said Brian Mayer, gaming and library technology specialist for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, a consortium in Western New York that works with 22 schools and five counties.

He added that companies like Breakout EDU are offering kitchen table options as well for libraries. Breakout EDU, in fact, will be demonstrating on the Exhibits Floor at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago in June.

“We are in this beautiful Renaissance within libraries and librarianship where we’re kind of rediscovering and reimagining who we are and what we do and how we can engage and provide services and programs for our patrons,” he said. “I think we have been making that shift from destination to community. We’re like a community hub and community center, and we are finding different ways to kind of enable and engage our patrons with ideas with learning with knowledge.”