10 Engaging Students’ Curiosity through Library-Based Puzzles in Escape Rooms

Holly Jackson

“By combining library research skills with puzzles in the escape rooms, students get to practice their information literacy skills while having fun and racing against the clock to ‘escape.’”  


In the path to becoming information literate, I’ve found that students don’t want to sit through lectures or spend too much time on one topic – if they don’t have a vested interest. For me, as a librarian and instructor, the teaching method that seems to work best is a hands-on approach that stimulates their intellectual curiosity about the topic. Gamified or game-based learning practices tend to work well with my students and catch their attention, allowing them to have fun while learning skills that will help them with their research. Over the last couple of years, I’ve found that students and faculty have both been interested in escape rooms that I’ve created for the library, whether in-person or virtual.

Virtual Escape Rooms and Instruction

One of the first escape rooms that I designed, “Escape from North Hall Library,” was virtual and crafted in Google Forms. In 2020, with the pandemic forcing our instruction online and taking away chances for students to roam through the library, I became inspired by other schools and public libraries that were using Google Forms as escape rooms. I decided to try this as an option to provide a way for our library community to engage with the library even though they couldn’t physically be there. This is more broadly applicable for students who are regularly virtual as well, as many classes move to an online format in higher education.

Using images from the library and a series of virtual puzzles, participants got a virtual tour of the library through a gamified method of exploring. This also worked to pique their curiosity by having them complete puzzles as they learned about the library.


Here’s the first part of the virtual room where they were introduced to what was going on:

Figure 1.

“Escape for North Hall Library” opening screenshot.


One of the unique aspects of our library is that we are rumored to have a ghost named Sarah. It’s a local lore that students and the local community both love, and we have ghost hunters, who come on an annual basis to check out the library. Using this as inspiration for this escape room helped bring in a local element that intrigued our library community. For our first-year students, who had not yet been able to see the library, this also gave them a fun connection to the library that might draw them in when we reopened.


Moving forward in the virtual room, participants began “in” our Traditional Reading Room. The first puzzle to get out of that space was structured like they had to enter numbers in a lock to get it to open, but because it was a virtual escape room, it just required them to select the right answer to move to the next part. Using some local history, the answer to this clue was the year that the library opened.


Figure 2.

First puzzle in “Escape from North Hall Library”.

In Google Forms, sections are created to help move participants around. If participants typed in the wrong answer, they were simply redirected to the question to try again. If they selected the right answer, they were moved to the next location – our Information Desk.


Figure 3.

Options for moving forward past the first puzzle in “Escape from North Hall Library”.


At the end of the escape room, after working through the puzzles, participants were asked a series of questions to learn more about who they were, how they found the escape room, and where they were located to get a glimpse of how wide-ranging the escape room might be. We had over 1000 people play along with our escape room in the first month, which was particularly impressive, since we’re a smaller university with around 1400 students currently.

Taking a look at the comments, we noted that people mentioned things like:

  • “Really fun! I wish it was longer though.”
  • “Loved it! What a clever idea. If it takes off, I would like to see more, with more puzzles :)”
  • “This was cool! I think the only thing that could’ve made it better is having more riddles or more questions with options rather than just one option to continue.”
  • “Such fun! An even longer experience would add to that fun! This would also make a great way for a new student to learn the layout of the library; even the whole campus!”
  • “Add more options for the rooms! Wrong answers that lead to Sarah getting you, getting trapped in a closet, spooky stuff! But it was awesome! I miss MU.”

The link to the “Escape from North Hall Library” escape room is https://bit.ly/escapefromnorthhall.


We took this to heart and created a second escape room with more challenges and repercussions for wrong answers that was targeted toward our incoming first-year students participating in first year seminars at the university.

Drawing on the idea that students should get a tour to learn about resources, the second escape room was crafted with most of our main areas in the library being represented as an area to solve a puzzle within. We called this escape room “The Day the Books Took Over.”


In this escape room, students started off with a simplified version of a map of the library that would lead them around:


Figure 4.

“The Day the Books Took Over” opening screenshot.

Each of the areas on the map had a puzzle inspired by one of the themed first year seminar courses being offered that fall. Here’s a breakdown of what that looked like:



Course Inspiration

Music Library, 1st floor

A number lock that is unlocked by answering music questions that lead to the number

Our Lives through Music (a music-inspired first year seminar)

Education Library, 1st floor

Answering the name of a Grimm brothers’ story character

Grimm’s Fairy Tales (a fairy tale-inspired first year seminar)

Popular Reading Area, 2nd floor

The potion puzzle from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Magic & Muggle Studies (a Harry Potter-inspired first year seminar)

Information Desk/Reference Area, 2nd floor

A direction lock on a bicycle tied up around one of the room’s columns – participants must read through a story with a map and unlock the bicycle by entering the correct compass directions from the story

Climb That Mountain (an outdoor-inspired first year seminar)

Media Library, 3rd floor

Decoding a message said to be from Star Wars characters

Star Wars: The Student Awakens (a Star Wars-inspired first year seminar)

Book Stacks, 3rd floor

A pirate-themed math puzzle solved by figuring out the missing number of a math equation using images representing numbers (inspired by popular social media puzzles going around at the time)

Mummies, Pirates, and Vikings (a first year seminar that involved the history of mummies, pirates, and Vikings)

Book Stacks, 4th floor

Encountering a military officer who directs you to tell him how many differences there are between two pictures of the space in the 4th floor north wing

Experiencing Battle (a first year seminar that’s an introduction to military history)

Trying to exit the library

A maze guarded by a minotaur

Becoming a Hero (a first year seminar based on the Hero’s Journey)

Some of the comments we received from participants of this second escape room included:

  • “Love the puzzles!!”
  • “It was great! Very challenging!”
  • “Fun! Didn’t get the goose question, but the other questions were challenging enough to make me think but not impossible to solve”

This solved our “not challenging enough” concern from the first one while still providing a chance to stimulate the intellectual curiosity of our incoming students through puzzles inspired by first year seminars that they might be taking.

The link to the “Day the Books Took Over” escape room is https://bit.ly/daythebookstookover

Back to In-Person Instruction and Physical Escape Rooms

After pandemic restrictions began lifting a bit and we returned to in-person instruction, it was time to begin planning escape rooms that would utilize the physical space of the library.

Beginning in fall 2021, our library began offering a new workshop series called the “Rainbow of Research Skills.” Students could take one of the following workshops spread throughout the academic year:

  • Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Citation Management
  • Designing Infographics
  • Evaluating Sources
  • Finding Images
  • Google Like a Pro
  • Integrating Sources
  • Navigating JSTOR
  • Presenting or Publishing Your Work
  • Research Skills Escape Room
  • Tips for Reading Scholarly Articles

These are marketed primarily toward first- and second-year students taking their early general education courses. At the end of each workshop, students receive a certificate of participation and a unique button to that workshop. The workshop buttons make up the colors of the rainbow, tying in with the workshop series’ title.


Figure 5.

The buttons given out for attending Rainbow of Research Skills workshops.


The culminating event of the workshop series each semester is the Research Skills Escape Room. This room was designed to test students’ research abilities based on some of the skills they learned in class and through other workshops they may have attended.


The escape room is held in the Traditional Reading Room in our library. This is a neat space that has couches and a fireplace and is a fairly cozy room. It’s also not open except for certain events, so it’s appealing to all of our students, who are naturally curious about what’s in it. The room is set up like this:


Figure 6:

Layout of Traditional Reading Room for Research Skills Escape Room.


The puzzles are solved in a linear way that has the students work together in the room to solve them. Each puzzle relates to the library in some way, whether it helps participants practice a skill or provides an introduction or introduces something physically in the room. These puzzles are also tied to the library’s learning outcomes for instruction.

Puzzle table.

Like the other workshops in the series, the students receive a certificate for participating and a button. If they make it out of the escape room, they receive an “I escaped” button, and if they don’t escape, they receive a “so close but no escape” button.


The students who have participated in this escape room so far have really enjoyed it, and we’ve had interest from faculty who work with first- and second-year students to do the escape room with their classes. Because of the size of the Traditional Reading Room, we’re not able to accommodate full classes and attendance for each escape session is capped at 10 people.


With that in mind, over summer 2022, I worked on designing an “escape room” that utilizes the entire library so anyone, whether individually or in a small group or in a full-sized class, can participate. This was shared with our first year seminar faculty as an option to replace the traditional tour for their class sessions and a few took us up on that during fall 2022.


For this escape room, there are 10 clues and students can be split up among the locations to start:

  • Clue 1:   A QR code video that introduces students to what services are available at the Service Desk at the front of the library.
  • Clue 2:   A puzzle in the Popular Reading Area that introduces the area and spells out that students should go to the Atrium next.
  • Clue 3:   Introduces students to the directional wings of the building and has them figure out where to head using the different wing entrances.
  • Clue 4:   Introduces them to study rooms in the library and highlights the screening room on the 1st floor. The clue decodes where they should head in the next area.
  • Clue 5:   Shows them the children’s book area of the Education Library and has them look up a book in the catalog to head to their next clue.
  • Clue 6:   Has them find where that book from Clue 5 would be on the shelf on the 4th floor and sends them toward the Library classroom across the hall.
  • Clue 7:   Shows the Library classroom and directs students to the tutoring area on the 3rd floor.
  • Clue 8:   Introduces students to the types of tutors that meet in the library and has students look up a movie in the catalog.
  • Clue 9:   Has students head to where the movie is on the shelf in the Media Library and then directs them to the nearest printer, showing them where they can go to print.
  • Clue 10:   Sends students to the Service Desk.

Students complete the following worksheet which can be turned in to show participation and helps them keep track of their clues. To escape, they must finish the worksheet:

Library Area 1

Start at the place where you can ask a librarian a question.

Fill out the resources introduced in the video to head to the next clue in the Popular ____________ Area (the brackets spell this out):

[R] OOMS to study,
[E] XTRA supplies (white boards, laptops, even umbrellas),
[A] SK a librarian questions,
Grab [I] NTERLIBRARY loan materials,
Take [N] OTES using course reserves, and
[G] ET materials checked out.

Library Area 2

What does the puzzle spell out?  ATRIUM

Library Area 3

What do to the clues spell out:

      135                           MU                         SIC                       LIBRARY
(North Wing)         (East Wing)          (West Wing)           (South Wing)

Library Area 4

What does the puzzle spell out?  CABBAGE

Library Area 5

What is the call number for the book? TJ 163.2 .E86 2007

What floor and wing can you find it in? 4th floor South

Library Area 6

What number do the clues make?

                                    2                             9
# of Mounties        # of Seals               # of M’s

Library Area 7

What are the three types of tutors?

Peer Research Consultants
Writing Tutors
Spanish Tutors

Library Area 8

What is the call number for the movie? DVD PN1997.2.F5635 2003

What floor and wing can you find it in? 3rd floor South

Library Area 9

What was missing in one of the pictures? The printer

Library Area 10

What is the place where you can ask a librarian a question? Service Desk

Traditionally in our library tour for first-year students, we start them at our Popular Reading Area, located near our combined Service Desk (circulation and information). We explain both areas and then move them into the large open atrium that spans the height of the library and point out information on our other floors. In the atrium, we highlight how to navigate our direction-based wings, where our materials can be found, where the printers are located, and other useful information. This escape room has them physically move to each of the locations, which actually goes a step beyond our tour where we primarily stay in the open atrium and explain where things are.

The role of the library in engaging the intellectual curiosity of first- and second-year students

The escape rooms themselves are intriguing opportunities for students that naturally engage their curiosity. The role of library in the escape room is to engage students through the use of the physical space and some basic information literacy instruction. Combining both of these elements through escape room puzzles helps to maximize the instruction and learning for students. Years ago at a LOEX conference, I heard the term “camogagy,” which stands for camouflaged pedagogy. It’s one of my favorite terms and one that really applies to the escape rooms designed and run through North Hall Library. The instruction that students are receiving is camouflaged within the fun puzzles that they complete that help reinforce skills and knowledge of the library and its resources.


Each puzzle is crafted with an element of the library in mind and how we can creatively engage students in that area. Some examples include:

Figure 7.

In the virtual escape room, “The Day the Books Took Over,” one of the clues takes place in the second floor north wing, which is our reference area. It challenges students to pull relevant information from a story to be able to solve the clue, shows an image of the space to give them a peek at what the physical library looks like, introduces the professor’s newest published book, and then instructs students about what to do with books when they’re done looking at them in the library. This covers some basic skills and some tour elements all while being online in a Google form. Here’s the text of the full clue:

Clue on second floor of the north wing, reference area.

As you enter the north wing, you see a woman with a bike helmet holding a bicycle lock that’s keeping a bike locked against the center column.

What do you say to her?
□ “Hey! Do you need any help?”
[“Oh! That would be great. I had to run into the restroom and when I came back this lock was on my ride, with a note saying that my mountain trip holds the key. Can you help me get this open?”
You tell her, “Sure! Can you tell me the story of your recent trip?”]
□ “What on earth are you doing with a bike in the middle of the library?!”
[“Well, I had to run into the restroom and when I came back this lock was on my ride, with a note saying that my mountain trip holds the key. Can you help me get this open?”
You look at her a bit skeptically, but tell her, “I guess…can you tell me the story of your   recent trip?”]

You look at the lock as she starts telling you the story and notice that it’s a 4-section letter lock. The only options on each section are “E, N, S, W” so you suspect the directions she went on her adventure are going to be the key.

She dives in and tells you…

“Well, I started out in this cute little village. The people were super friendly and I told them I needed help because I wanted to go hike the big mountains, but lost my map. They sent me over to the forest and told me to head through there.

From there, I kayaked in the river over to the mountains, which was pretty sweet. The water wasn’t too rough so I didn’t have too much trouble there.

I hit the mountains and headed to the summit, where I snapped an AWESOME picture of the village from up high.

I headed back to the village to give them a copy as thanks for helping me out.

And that was basically it.”

You think you’ve got it figured out. What code do you put into the lock?

If you select the wrong answer:

You don’t know how, but somehow you end up on top of a mountain! What on earth happened? You definitely aren’t dressed appropriately…

□ Get me out of here!

If you answer correctly:

The lock opened and you look up to talk to the woman, when you notice that they’ve both vanished! In their place you find a book called “When Everything Beyond the Walls is Wild” by Lilace Mellin Guignard. You pick up the book and stick it on the cart return on your way out, shaking your head a bit and wondering what on earth is going on.

This clue provides repercussions for the wrong answer that might set students back a little bit but get them to focus more on interpreting the relevant information from the clue to apply to their escape. It also introduces them to a physical space in the library and some of the work a professor has done.

In  the physical escape room “Research Skills Escape Room,” the starting clue is a citation with some information missing instructing students to “Find the missing citation piece and a similar book to enter it.” The citation says:

Trumble, William R., Angus Stevenson, & Lesley Brown. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. 5th ed. OUP, 2

There is a laptop in the room open to the library’s homepage where students should type in the title to pull up the information. Whether they use the “cite” button on the page or simply look at the information in the item record, they’ll find that the year is missing the rest of the numbers – “002.”

The similar book mention refers to a lockbox on the fireplace mantle that is designed to look like a dictionary. Once they open that, they’ll find a three-digit lock unlocked by the “002.”

This clue not only has students engage with the library learning outcome “Students will be able to cite sources,” it also has them practice using our catalog and finding information from the records there. It engages their curiosity by having them move around the room trying to find all the missing pieces of the clue to move to the next one.

By combining library research skills with puzzles in the escape rooms, students get to practice their information literacy skills while having fun and racing against the clock to “escape.”

Now that we’ve tried multiple types of escape rooms, we’ll continue evolving what works to continue engaging with students. Since this is the second year of running the in-person escape room in our Traditional Reading Room, I plan to create a new version to run next year to alternate every couple of years so that students have different options for playing along. I took our in-person escape room to one of our residence halls recently and the students were excited about it and noted that they saw there was an escape room in the library too. I had to break it to them that the escape room in the library was the same escape room, which prompted me to start thinking of new options for next year.


While the virtual escape rooms were fun during the pandemic, our engagement with them has steeply dropped off. If there’s a desire to create more in the future, particularly for our first-year seminar courses or orientation, we can definitely revisit creating more, but for now those are on hold. There are some good how to videos on YouTube about creating escape rooms in Google Forms if anyone is interested in trying their hand at that. One in particular that I recommend is “Create A Virtual Escape Room with Google Forms Tutorial” by Sydney Krawiec from the Peters Township Public Library (https://youtu.be/xLzbPGF4TzY).


Overall these escape rooms have been a lot of fun to create and run and our students seem to really enjoy them too.

About the Author

Holly Jackson is the Student Success Librarian at Mansfield University and Library Faculty Department Chair for Commonwealth University Libraries. She’s a big fan of gamified instruction and doing as much outreach around campus as possible. If you can’t find her in the library, you’ll find her in the residence halls or across campus working with students where she can.

Holly can be reached at hjackson@mansfield.edu


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