Solve the puzzles and celebrate your victory! Stay locked in and seethe (you were this close)!
If you’ve ever tried your luck at an escape room, you know the thrill of working to make sense of clues that will let you unlock the door and make your escape. But the one thing that might have made your escape experience even better? Archives! What if you could bring this special thrill to your archives’ patrons, while introducing them to your collections and resources? How would you go about it?
Laura Weakly, Metadata and Encoding Specialist at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, combined archives and escape rooms by organizing an event for students in Fall 2017 using clues rooted in Nebraska history. In the following interview with COPA member Caryn Radick, Digital Archivist at Rutgers University Libraries, Weakly discusses how the event was organized and offers tips for would-be room designers.
CR: Why did you decide to do an escape room?
LW: The escape room was part of a campus wide welcome event for new and returning students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for Fall semester 2017. The room was located in C. Y. Thompson Library on UNL’s East Campus. The idea was to draw students into the library and familiarize them with library resources in a fun way. The escape room was the brainchild of librarians Jennifer Thoegersen and Erica DeFrain. In 2015, Jenny and her husband Rasmus Thoegersen, who was then director of libraries in Nebraska City, had created an escape room as a children’s event at the Morton-James Public Library.
CR: Who was involved and how did it work?
LW: Besides Erica and Jenny, the project team consisted of 10 employees of the UNL Libraries who created games and set up the room. The team split into groups to create a storyline, come up with the puzzles, develop graphics, and devise the rules for gameplay. Thirteen others tested the room once it was set up to ensure that the puzzles were set up properly, explained well, and solvable. After testing, some of the games were modified to make them easier and to give more detailed instructions before the students began playing. The game consisted of three puzzles which had to be solved in the allotted 20 minute time period. The answers to the puzzles led to a code that then needed to be entered into a “Time Machine” — a skinned Raspberry Pi computer.
CR: How did you choose which stories you wanted to feature?
LW: The storyline we created was a time machine that would take the players back in the history of the campus to events that did or could have occurred on the campus. Players would then need to use library resources strategically placed in the room to help them solve the puzzles and return to the present time. UNL’s East Campus is home to the International Quilt Study Center and so one puzzle focused on using print resources to solve a quilt-based riddle. Another puzzle centered on the Larsen Tractor Test Museum and photographs of historic tractors found in our Image and Multimedia Collections. The puzzle that my group created was focused on historic Nebraska newspapers digitized as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program and found on Chronicling America and Nebraska Newspapers. I remembered from when we were performing collation that one of the papers, the Valentine Democrat, featured pages and pages of cattle brands. Our puzzle then centered on a supposed escape of cattle on East Campus, which is home to the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. We planted some “Fake News” about the escape in an edition of our campus newspaper The Daily Nebraskan. Players then had to read the story, find the relevant brands in the Valentine Democrat, and then find the brands on tiny plastic toy cows. The toy cows had the brand on one side and a number on the other. The numbers were the answer to the puzzle.
CR: What was the response (how many students and what were their reactions)? Also, what was the fastest time the mystery was solved in?
LW: Ten teams of 3-6 students played the room. Six teams successfully escaped. The fastest time, recorded by the only team with just 3 players, escaped in the time of 11:33. Even the teams that didn’t escape said that is was really fun and that they enjoyed playing it.
CR: What advice would you give to others thinking about setting up an escape room? Will you do another one?
LW: Having a good storyline and creating puzzles that go along with the story make a really great escape room. Testing and leaving enough time between groups to reset the room are also important. But mostly the room was about giving students an opportunity to go to the library just to have fun. We have already been talking about another escape room or rooms for the upcoming academic year, including possibly one in our new Learning Commons.