Escaping Library Orientation: The Introduction of Escape Rooms Into First-Year Experience Courses for Library Orientation and Familiarization

By Derek Malone
Assistant Professor, Instructional Services
& Interlibrary Loan, Scanning & Delivery Librarian
University of North Alabama


At the University of North Alabama, our first-year library instruction has developed over time into a three-part sequence. The sequence is embedded in three required general education courses: FYE 101 (First Year Experience Seminar), EN 111 (First-Year Composition I), and EN 112 (First-Year Composition II). All students, unless they have tested out of one of the requirements, will attend all three instruction sessions.

To alleviate redundancy, each course visit within the sequence has a different topical focus. Currently, our sequence visits are as follows; FYE 101 – Library Orientation and Familiarization, EN 111 – Critical Thinking with Information, EN 112 – Information Literacy. This structure was developed for a few reasons.

  1. No research is required until EN 112; however, information is used for papers in EN 111. We wish to have the EN 111 students thinking about how they use information, but do not fully go into evaluation until EN 112.
  2. Each class is not intended to be a library orientation. Previously, the majority of focus in each class was library orientation. That is no longer the case., The focus of FYE is library orientation and familiarization, and the others involve using library resources.

Figure 1: First-year library instruction course sequence with themed component at the University of North Alabama.

As library familiarization and orientation activities were transitioned to FYE 101, new and innovative ways of presenting the resources and information were sought out. Librarians instructing these classes wished to distance themselves from a lecture style presentation that encouraged attendees to follow along and click as needed on the homepage.  A more interactive and engaging presentation where students were actively discovering and exploring resources was desired.

The first iteration of active library familiarization and orientation was library Bingo. An instructor would stay at the podium and go over resources available on the library homepage and within the building. Once that resource was covered, students would mark the corresponding Bingo box by title. For example, the librarian might state “this is where you search for materials within the building, and maybe you have a title of the exact book you are looking for,” then the student would mark the box for “Library Catalog.”

Bingo was holding student’s attention; however, it was not terribly engaging. Students were following along, but they were just going through the motions of finding a corresponding Bingo space and marking it. Additionally, once one student had the first Bingo, it was very hard to hold the attention of the rest of the students, even if additional prizes were offered aside from the first student to reach Bingo prize.

In an effort to get a more interactive experience, the library orientation and familiarization component shifted from a Bingo game to an Amazing Race activity. Students, in groups of two, were given handouts with tasks of locating resources, explaining them, etc. with checkpoints built in along the way. This activity started in our library classroom on the computers, but unlike Bingo, required students to visit various places in the building, take pictures of themselves outside of the locations, etc.

Far more interaction and competitiveness was present during the Amazing Race compared to the Bingo activity. Additionally, students were working in groups of two, so they engaged in conversation throughout the activity. In almost every regard, the Amazing Race activity was a far better fit for us than was the Bingo game. However, there were still issues in gameplay and design.

First, since each group was two students, and we had the groups leave the room and explore the building as their final activity, some groups would leave well before others. This was discouraging to other groups even though they still had a very high competitive chance at winning. Additionally, the Amazing Race was not particularly relevant any longer to the first-year students that were in the library instruction sessions. Before each class, students were asked if they watched the Amazing Race on television, very few, if any were viewers. Many have never heard of the television show.

Thus, a new game and scenario was sought out for library orientation and familiarization.

Early Stages of Implementation of the Library Escape Room

Escape rooms were chosen as the activity to be installed in the FYE 101 portion of our first-year sequence. Escape rooms, being physical games with hidden clues, puzzles, and locks, all used together to “escape,” were chosen to revitalize and stimulate the FYE instruction. Escape rooms are opening throughout communities in the United States, and our town has two already established escape room businesses. Thus, students already are familiar with escape rooms and they are relevant and current. While we could not necessarily build a dedicated escape room for our students to use, we could use the tools and concepts of the games to construct something similar. Luckily, for educational purposes, a company already existed that sold kits to build educational escape rooms.

Our classroom has three rows with eight computers, split down the middle, thus 24 workstations within the classroom. Given that there are three rows on each side of the room, it was our best option to produce four escape rooms within each FYE 101 class: An escape room in the front and back row of both sides of the room for each class.

Figure 2: Layout of library classroom with tables used as escape rooms marked.

Figure 3: Escape room set up in front row left.

Figure 4: Escape room set up in back row right.

As we were transitioning from the previous orientation and familiarization models, the first step in designing the game was identification of what learning objectives and skills were desired from the gameplay. The learning objectives of this activity are very straightforward.

  1. Familiarization with the library homepage including identification of useful links.
  2. Familiarization with the library building including the ability to locate useful collections and onsite resources.

Those two learning objectives are the base of the design for the escape room. Each clue ties in directly with one of these learning objectives. Additionally, the narrative is focused on navigating through the website and the building with each clue and puzzle highlighting a useful link, resources, or place.

The Escape Rooms Layout, Clues & Gameplay

As previously stated, there are four concurrent escape rooms during the FYE class visits. When students enter the room, they are instructed to place their personal materials at the front of the room. After placing materials in the front of the room, students are placed randomly into one of the four escape rooms by the librarian leading the class.

At the University of North Alabama, FYE classes typically have twenty-five to thirty students enrolled. The escape rooms will typically have six to eight students within each during the class. Librarians, when assigning students to the rooms at the beginning of class, attempt to create balance in the number of students in each room. As students are placed into the escape rooms, they are instructed to remain standing until the first clue is read. This is important as they will soon be collecting clues afterward and need to be able to move through each room without impediment.

The BreakoutEDU ( kit contains five physical locks. It is worth noting that we are only using four of those locks. The lock that we are not using is a standard key lock. We are not using that lock because it would require hiding the key somewhere and basing a clue off that hidden location. Due to our constrained area for the escape room, and given the fact that we do not wish to have students leave their escape rooms during the activity, we have chosen not to use that lock.

The four locks that we are using include a four-digit lock, a three-digit lock, a directional multilock, and an ABC multilock. The three-digit lock is placed on a small lock box, while the other three locks are placed on a large lock box.

Throughout the escape room are the two lock boxes and eight pieces of paper, including the introductory clue. At the beginning of the activity, when all of the students are within their escape room, the librarian begins the activity by reading the initial clue. We have chosen to theme our escape room as a villainous group from a rival university attempting to shut down library resources. The students within their rooms have stumbled upon the villains’ plans, and the students need to use the clues within to stop the sabotage before it is too late. The initial clue is read to the class (all four rooms at once), the students are reminded that they must have at least one computer logged in and on the library homepage, and told that they have forty minutes to help save the library resources. A timer on the projector starts a countdown from forty minutes and the students begin.

Figure 5: Timer on whiteboard.

Figure 6: Escape room notes on chalkboard during activity to remind students of valuable information.

As previously stated, there are eight papers within the escape room, which all relate to villainous plans to sabotage library resources. They include screenshots of the library homepage detailing a plan to remove links, pictures of collections stating that they are too valuable and need to be removed, among other saboteur plots. Although there are eight pieces of paper including villainous plots and plans, not all of them have clues that unlock locks. Some are present only for theming.

Within the escape room is a folder with “ATTN: Start Here” written on the front, within that folder is a clue that unlocks the three-digit lock. The paper is a memo to the villains. It discusses three links to remove from our website. These are three links that we want the students to know and be able to refer to when using the library website. In addition to the three links mentioned, there is a screenshot of the library homepage with a number grid on it. The links fall within that number grid. The combination to the lock is obtained by correlating links to their respective place on the number grid.

With that lock combination, students are able to unlock the small lock box. It includes another memo from the villains and a UV flashlight. The flashlight corresponds with a paper already in the villains’ workspace that discusses subject liaisons. The students are tasked with finding the subject liaison for various subjects (obtained on the library homepage). When they shine the flashlight over the page, they will notice that some of the letters have been highlighted using a UV pen. This is the combination to the ABC multilock.

The paper included in the small lock box discusses the villainous plot of removing links and lists six links for removal. It says for the followers to “take direction” in removing the links. These are links that are important to the success of first-year students in their usage of library resources (hours, study room reservations, etc.). Using the computer that is on the library homepage, one can easily decipher that there is a clear direction in movement from one link to the next. With six links, there are five shifts in direction. Those five directions are the combination of the directional multilock.

The last piece of paper with a relevant clue highlights four collection areas in the building located on different floors. By using the library map on the website, students can gather that the corresponding floor number for each clue aligns perfectly with the four-digit lock. Once each of the three locks on the large lock box are unlocked, the box is ready to open.

The final clue for the activity is within the large lock box. It congratulates the team on escaping and says that they will need to complete one final activity in the building to win the reward for saving the day. This final clue instructs participants to visit three important places in the building:

  1. Thinkspace (Maker Space)
  2. Archives
  3. Collier Vision (Our television with current news)

After the students have taken pictures as a group outside of these areas with “We Escaped” signs and posted them to Instagram through their personal accounts, while tagging our library account. The first team back with completed posts wins. Only one student in the group was required to post to Instagram, however, we witnessed multiple occurrences where more than one student would do so simply because they wished to share. All other teams are given a token of appreciation for participating.

Assessment of the Escape Room & Adjustments

Over 30 FYE classes visited for library orientation and familiarization. Every class participated in the escape room. For the most part, the games ran smoothly, with very few issues. However, some issues were uncovered early and addressed immediately.

The first issue worth noting was the fact that early classes did not know where to start. When the escape rooms were introduced, there was no “ATTN: Start Here” folder. This folder was later included to alleviate that problem. After this folder was added, there was a clear starting point for the activity. Additionally, students were given more instruction by the librarian, encouraging them to gather clues and discuss how those clues corresponded to the locks.

The early escape room participants were also not instructed to stay within their escape rooms. This was added as there was too much spying on and conversing with other groups. Librarians started instructing groups to stay within their rooms and collaborate only within their group. It was reiterated that this was a competition.

Time was a concern early on, as well. FYE classes only last fifty minutes, and while our activity is only forty minutes of the class, there is a fair amount of setting up, prepping the activity, etc. There is also an eagerness present from the librarians to make sure that the students explore each link, see the webpage, and visit the locations within the building. In the early escape rooms, students were given more than their one allotted hint due to concerns of the groups not finishing in time, but this  was completely unnecessary. Students did far more exploration and discussion when not being pushed along by a librarian. By allowing the game to breathe and students to explore on their own, more discovery occurs.

There were few, but some equipment issues. We encouraged students to write on the papers within the room, using them for note paper, etc. So, the papers were in constant need of replacement. We keep replacement papers in a filing cabinet in the room. Unfortunately, two of the UV flashlights broke midway through the semester. We ordered inexpensive replacements and added them into the game.

Next Steps & Conclusion

The feedback concerning our escape rooms has been tremendous. One college has already asked if we can work with a lab within one of their departments to design escape rooms applicable to their learning objectives. Additionally, multiple FYE professors have reached out to thank us and mention how well received the activity was.

Occasionally overhead conversations that blossomed from the escape activity were inspiring for the librarians conducting the sessions. One example is the conversation that was focused around research consultations. One student remarked that he “had done one before, and it was extremely helpful.” Another conversation concerned study room reservations.  A student relayed information to another student concerning the availability of study room reservations, how they worked, and how convenient they were. These conversations and sharing of information within the escape room were ultimately the goals of the activity.

We currently have an active survey concerning what concepts were retained by the students from their escape room activity. We are primarily concerned with what website links are retained and what spaces in the building are remembered. This data once available, coupled with the information gained through installation and experimentation of the escape rooms, will aid in the design of future rooms.

Currently, this venture is considered a complete success. Moving forward we will continue to offer escape rooms as the FYE class visit activity. However, the clues and theme will continually change to remain relevant and current to the library website and space design. Our goal at the beginning of this process was to relay information concerning the library, both virtual and physical in a fun and interactive environment. We feel as though that endeavor has been successful, and in a sense, we have escaped across this new frontier with creative flair.