We asked Dr Matthew Shaw, librarian at the Institute of Historical Research, to reflect on the success of ‘Night at the Library: Books of Hope and Fear’.

This public engagement activity was organised as part of the Being Human Festival 2016, and created an immersive ‘escape room’ style experience in the library, with performances from This&That Productions. The event was featured in an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking on 16 November, 2016.   

See the event page

Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?

Our event aimed to introduce a younger, and probably London-based, audience to the IHR Library and to communicate the current state of historical research on the Great Fire of London (and the process of doing historical research). We hoped to raise the profile of the library, the range of materials, and the breadth of subjects that could be studied in the library. We also wanted to highlight the contemporary political resonances of the Great Fire and to explore the use of the Internet of Things (iBeacons) in a library/heritage environment.

We wanted to do something in the library that explored the process of research, and perhaps introduced some new people to the richness and usefulness of the collection here. After thinking about some questions based around the collections, and making use of the library’s physical space, we very quickly realised that what we had in mind was a type of ‘Escape Room’, where people had to solve puzzles (and conduct ‘research’ to progress from room to room.

The event took place over one evening, and had around 70 attendees.

What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event?

Being Human’s exploration of hope and fear suggested the Great Fire of London as a theme. Tying in with celebrations of the 350th anniversary of this event helped to focus our plans, attract and audience and pin the event down in geographical terms. We were also able to capitalise on the expertise of our post-doctoral Low Countries fellow, Dr Stijn van Rossum, who was integral to the creation, development and implementation of the project and enabled us to bring a focus on the Dutch connections to the fire.

Funding enabled us to secure the services of This&That Productions to help produce the event and to develop scripts for four actors would posed the challenges to participants as they made their way through the three rooms. These included an audience with a lascivious Charles II, full of hope for his new capital city, a concerned printer to the king, trying to keep abreast of the destruction as the fires raged, and a Dutch immigrant, fearful for her son who had been arrested and accused of arson.

Excitement about the event helped to make it a collaborative event, with a lot of contributions from across our organisation  in terms of time and ideas.  Having a set date, and a small pot of money to use, focussed the mind and allowed us to press on with the practicalities.

What were the main challenges and how did you overcome these?

Planning the game required a lot of work, and the event took place during a very busy and resource-intensive time for the library. We had to work around the needs of our regular library users – without whose understanding and tolerance the project wouldn’t have been possible – and to dedicate several days to finalising the event, including several rehearsals in order to gather feedback on the format and whether the puzzles were solvable!

What, if any, other audience outcomes did you identify? What were the main outcomes for you and /or your organisation?

Overall, people seemed very excited by the event and enjoyed themselves.  They did, however, want more, in terms of learning outcomes and perhaps clearer route through the event on the day.

Some comments included:

I liked the characters - Charles was great! Complexity of quiz was well balanced & challenging

‘so creative, so much fun, learned loads - what you hope educational events for adults might be!’

We also had some media coverage for the event, with Radio 3 Free Thinking‘s Shahidha Bari and Laurence Scott doing a trial run in the countdown to the night itself.  Their adventures were broadcast just before our event (you can hear it here, about 36 minutes in).

We found that the event worked well as a collaborative, team building project within the organisation, and it helped us develop a new partnership with This&That Productions.

What next? It’s possible that the event, or something like it, may return to the IHR. We will certainly look at how the puzzles and ideas might be used in library induction or training, as well as think a bit more about how escape games might relate to historical teaching, and even research, in the future. 

What top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?

My top tips would be:

  1. Do something that excites and interests you, and so will enthuse others.

  2. Think about the bigger picture, e.g., what benefits will it bring to the organisation, how can it be repurposed, how does it relate to the broader mission or purpose of your institution.

  3. Block out time to devote to the event (including afterwards).