As COVID-19 restrictions were lifted Melissa Foley-King, a librarian at the Hamilton Branch of the Enoch-Pratt Free Library system, found herself with the best kind of problem: libraries were once again flooded with kids.
Still, that had its own kind of challenges.
“I work in a library where I have 40 to 50 kids every day after school, and we have to not only keep them safe, but find something for them to do every day,” said Foley-King. “So I’m just forever trying to… think outside the box for stuff for them to do.”
Foley-King is also a teaching assistant at the University of Baltimore where she teaches alongside Rachel Zeleny in a class called “arts and social justice.” Zeleny realized that maybe the popular escape room trend could be a perfect way to help libraries not only educate but also entertain kids. She realized that with a bit of creativity, she could have her undergraduate students build and design complete escape room kits that could go out and be kept in libraries.
“The idea behind the project is that a lot of libraries lost staffing, during the pandemic, and that kids really needed to be able to still go somewhere after school and have safe places where they can do educational things,” explained Zeleny as she prepared for class on a Thursday evening in March.
Here’s how a traditional escape room works: players get locked in a room and solve a series of puzzles that lead to clues that help them get out. There’s always a storyline or a mystery to be solved before you can escape.
In this case, players aren’t actually getting locked in the library. Instead, these are portable and meant to be played by small groups of kids (or teens or adults) whenever they want.
All the components of the escape room — puzzles, props and all — get packed in a suitcase that is loaned out to the library. When you’re ready to play, you check the game out of the card catalog like any other resource. And while it requires a librarian to set up some clues and props, it doesn’t need much supervision. Some games might focus on one section of the library while others take the adventure throughout the building. They’re designed to use books most institutions have so they can be transferred around the system.
Using funding from the UBalt Honors college, everything is completely made by the students, so it’s free content in a world where libraries are always clamoring for money. “Escape rooms are great, they love touching stuff and solving puzzles,” said Foley-King of the young elementary kids who visit her library.