The Library Treasure Hunt

More adventures in gamifying higher education.


One challenge facing journalism educators in this age of instant-access Internet is getting students to leave the warm glow of their computer screens to conduct primary source research. It seems if they can’t find something through Google it doesn’t exist. As a journalism professor, however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t expose my students to research beyond the web, and since I’m researching a book on ways that game mechanics are expressed in everyday life I wondered if gamification could be a good way to do it. This led me to team up with Alexa Pearce, a research librarian at New York University’s Bobst Library who works with the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, to create a mobile, interactive treasure hunt.

All of this was a continuation of another gamified higher education experiment I tried earlier in the semester when I had grad students in my writing and reporting workshop wander New York City’s financial district to play a game created by Stray Boots. This time the idea behind the hunt was to send my graduate journalism students scurrying into parts of the library where they’d never set foot before, seeking bits of information that couldn’t be located online. In the process students would learn something about Bobst Library and its vast storehouse of knowledge–its 2.5 million books in open stacks, 500,000 government documents, 80,000 audio and video recordings.

I make it a rule to push my students to conduct face-to-face and/or phone interviews with living, breathing humans–I require a minimum of two sources per story, and assign at least one a week–and invite a research librarian to class to run a seminar on research databases. In addition, I have students cover live events and every semester organize a press conference with an economist from the Conference Board, a think tank. For the first seven years I taught at NYU, I also assigned an in-class research test (the precursor to this interactive treasure hunt) that required students to answer 10 questions without using the Internet.

The test is not easy. Over the years I’ve posed questions like, “How many nations are represented by the combined student body of New York City’s public schools?” (150), “How many languages are spoken in New York City’s five boroughs?” (anywhere from 180 to 200, depending on how you define a language versus a dialect), and “What is the most popular T-shirt sold at NYU’s bookstore?” (Champion gray T-Shirt with NYU written in blue). I’ve also asked what kind of reddish stone makes up Bobst Library’s facade (sandstone), the number of New York City council members (51), vice presidents who died in office (7), and countries represented in the last summer Olympics (204 in 2008). For each answer students were required to provide an unimpeachable source, either a person (with contact information) or bibliographic citation for a book or periodical.

At the beginning it was relatively easy to gin up with questions that weren’t findable online, but during the second half of the “aughts” (2005–2010) the rate of information migrating to the web picked up considerably. It also became more common for the people my students called for answers to point them to websites. And then there were the complaints. The third year in a row I asked for the value of Columbia University’s endowment ($7.8 billion, give or take) an administrator, irked with fielding their queries, yelled at several students. After that I limited the scope to information sitting in the library. But I figured a treasure hunt would be much more fun, and threw in an incentive: I informed the class that the students with the top three top scores could redeem their points for the right to buy their way out of a future assignment. This proved a popular motivator.

On a recent Tuesday morning my students congregated in Bobst’s cavernous atrium. All of them were required to carry a smartphone with a preloaded QR code reader app. Alexa had ginned up 15 different tests because we didn’t want a horde of students inundating the same location at once and hoped to make cheating if not impossible at least very difficult. The test was composed of nine questions, each worth 1,000 points, and if a student requested help or a hint it would cost 250 points. They had three hours to complete it.


Students were only given the first question. Alexa and I had designed the game so that students had to level up to advance. In other words, the only way to get to the next question was through a previous correct answer. For example, the first question might have been to wade into the stacks to find a volume associated with a specific call number. When the student found the book, there might be a note inside with the next clue instructing her to go to page 28 and locate the second word that starts with a “c.” The word might be “concomitant” and the student might have to find it in the Oxford English Dictionary and identify its first recorded use, then email the answer to Alexa, who would reply with the next clue.

We also threw in an acrostics that had students unscramble a set of letters that would lead to a specific periodical (say, the New Yorker), then have them consult the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature to find the right microfilm, which they would have to scan. When they came upon the article they were seeking they might have to create a PDF and email it to Alexa, who would send back the next clue, which might entail listening to a speech by Amelia Earhart or Franklin Delano Roosevelt and filling in the blank to a phrase three minutes into the speech. Or perhaps they had to venture into a special collection of rare cookbooks and snap a photo of a recipe to text to Alexa, who would text back the next clue that could lead to a QR code hidden in the stacks, which might instruct them to head to the lower level of the library, where I was waiting with coffee, donuts, and another clue.

Over the years, scores on my research tests vary quite a bit, and the students seemed to feel a sense of dread about it. On this Bobst Library Research Treasure Hunt three students earned perfect scores–and gladly collected their free pass on a future assignment–while most of the others lost points by buying hints or making careless mistakes. One student, for instance, lost 100 points because she located a book based on its citation but chose the wrong word to look up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Still, as a class, the scores were far higher than they ever were for the static research tests I used to give.

I imagine the students could have learned all this from a tour of the library, but that’s a passive way to learn and I bet they would have retained little. By adopting elements of game design, suddenly a challenging information exam becomes edutainment. And you can discern from the questions it is by no means dumbed down: It’s a rigorous exam, but one in which the students have fun, gain knowledge, develop a greater appreciation for what Bobst Library has to offer, and tend to retain what they’ve learned.

And there’s no app for that.

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.


[Image: Flickr user half-blood prince]

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books.