Escape From Durham University Library

Last Friday – Valentine’s Day – Durham University Library and Collections welcomed a class of 35 year 10 pupils (and 3 teachers) from Southmoor Academy in Sunderland. The pupils were there to learn about who we are and what we do, as well as sampling a little of what life at university is like when it comes to finding and using resources.

A visit to an academic library on Valentine’s Day – whats not to love?!

This was my first experience of accompanying a group of this age. As the Faculty Librarian for the Business School I work with undergraduates, postgraduates and staff. But not schoolkids. I have two teenagers of my own. I come to work to get away from them…!

The pupils spent the morning at Palace Green library with Jennie Aspinall, Danielle Westerhof and Emily Dowler, where first they (and I) got to play a Plickers quiz all about Durham University Library and Collections. To my shame, despite having worked here for 20+ years, I got three questions wrong! (In my defence, they were pretty hard…) After that the pupils got to have a go at interpreting a manuscript, they got hands on with some books from our Special Collections and – the personal highlight of my morning – they got to ‘recreate’ scenes from The Lindisfarne Gospels using props and their imaginations. I tell you, I’ve never seen so many kids so keen to play the part of ‘the foot stool’ as it involved ‘just lying down on the floor’.

After lunch, the group made its way from Palace Green to The Bill Bryson Library where they were to spend the afternoon with Jennie and I and the modern collections, focussing on skills such as interpreting references and catalogue records. Now, as previously mentioned, I’ve been a librarian for a long time, and one of the core parts of my role is teaching information skills. But even I confess that the subject matter is somewhat…dry. Particularly to a group of 14-15 year-olds. So, how to spice up such thrilling topics as ‘this bit of the reference is the place of publication’ and ‘this is broadly how the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme work?’

By challenging the pupils to work it out for themselves. And making it competitive.

Escape packs – like pass the parcel. Without the passing. Or music. And more thinking.

I’d seen escape packs demonstrated earlier this year in a different context, and I immediately thought we could use them in a library and Collections setting. All we needed to do was tailor the tasks to the learning outcomes – searching for and finding a catalogue record, understanding what the information meant and using it to find a book on the shelf, and then understanding how that book might be references. All within the context of allowing the pupils to (quietly) explore a large academic library.

We split the group of 35 into 7 groups of 5, and each group was given an escape pack (which was, in effect, a big brown envelope). The envelope had a task on it that required an answer. When the group had fulfilled the task and penned the correct answer, they could submit this to The Gamesmaster (me – and I stress I never referred to myself as that, despite really wanting to) for verification. Once verified (and stamped) they could open the envelope and proceed to the next level. Which was another envelope. And another task.

There were 5 tasks in total, and when the final one was completed the last envelope contained a code for a lock-box. The box contained the prize. As it was Valentine’s Day, all of the tasks related to romance-themed texts, and the prizes consisted of beautifully constructed origami hearts (beautifully constructed by Jennie I might add, not me, otherwise it’d probably have been a lock-box full of scrunched paper horrors). So don’t let it be said we don’t put effort into theming our activities!

This was the first time I’d tried anything like this, and it worked really well. The students were enthusiastic and all teams eventually completed the task. Three teams were in a real race to be first, and it was nice to see them undertaking the tasks with genuine thought as to what they were being asked. At the verification points I was able to talk to the pupils about the answers they had given and how they’d come to that conclusion, and Jennie spent time helping students find books on the shelves when they struggled.

Post-escape carnage

In terms of what I’d do differently, I think it might have been a touch hard! But it was difficult to gauge exactly what the pupils would or wouldn’t know going into the task (note: publishers and pagination were a common sticking point). But overall, with some refinements, I’d happily do it again. And in truth, as well as being more beneficial for the students, it was much more enjoyable for me than just standing there lecturing!

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