Breaking the Rules

tasticAnother Mystery Night (our fourteenth…wow) is done. It was a great installment of this annual spooky ‘haunted house/scavenger hunt’ shriek-fest: Full attendance, fun theme, everything where it needed to be for the game to work. (Another sweet thing: All my teen staff from both library locations in one place at the same time, which really only happens at this event!) The only minor issue was that our catalog upgrade which has made searching for items more intuitive for users makes for much easier gameplay: teams no longer have to enter in authors last name-first, or even spell things correctly for the desired item to turn up. What is great for our users is not so great for this once-a-year bibliographic instruction/after-hours live-action frenzy! There’s no real complaint there – just something to adjust for before I design the next one!

The basics of Mystery Night – it’s an annual, themed after-hours event where teens work in teams using the library catalog to search for items, following paths of clues leading from one item to the next through the library, with one team ultimately finishing first by finding that years MacGuffin.

This year’s crop of clue-hiding items, waiting to be shelved for the players to find

Something else I didn’t anticipate: Usually our older teens (for this event, grades 10 and up) transition from playing the game to volunteering as ‘scarers,’ the performance element of this event, but this year’s group of sophomores, juniors and seniors…just…didn’t want to. They wanted to play. A lot of these teens also attend our Fandoms United group and at some point between our Friday fandoms session and Saturday’s event, they decided to split themselves up, knowing there are a set number of teens on each team so they wouldn’t all be able to play together. This was unprecedented and had a major impact on gameplay: Basically, each team had one or more experienced players (so we didn’t have a team or two made up entirely of inexperienced and hyped-up sixth graders.) The game went really, really fast. Too fast, it seemed. I plan for these games to take about an hour to get through and the eventual winning team, with some of those Fandoms ringers taking charge, was looking for the MacGuffin about 20 minutes in (ending the game way too early for the bulk of the attendees, and leaving me to scramble for a way to vamp until pick-up time.) Luckily, they couldn’t locate our loose cryptid for another half-hour, giving other teams a chance to catch up. In the end, we had four of six teams racing to finish first, with the remaining two teams in it, just a bit behind the others.

Our Cryptid, made of old plastic toys and hot glue. I am not a natural crafter.

I keep meaning to put together a manual on how to do this program (or, our version of it – so many fantastic youth services librarians do similar things and have their own methods for success. That we can each approach an idea from different angles is one of the many reasons I love this job.) I will…I mean, there’s a tab for it up in the navigation, so I kind of have to.

For now though, I’m thinking about why it works, why it still draws an eager audience of teens that anticipate and return for it again and again, and why I get such a charge from planning and executing it, after all these years.

HS Vols
Teen volunteers at one of the very first Mystery Nights

It’s a bit about tradition: There are certain things you can count on in libraries, no matter how we evolve and transform to meet the needs of our users. The best example I can think of is storytime. This is a generalization, of course, but I can’t imagine that a plurality of libraries would or will ever, as a core practice, ditch storytime. The format and content may change, but it is generally a pretty stable, universal (and mission-critical) ‘library thing.’ Our community regards Mystery Night as a tradition – a program that older siblings and acquaintances went to before our current cohort of teens could and it was an experience to look forward to. The format and content have changed, slightly, over the years, but the core practice, action and feeling of the event will not. I’m really proud of that. We’ve had long-running programs before but they all have, and will, fade away at some point in time. (I L-O-V-E my Fandoms group. We’ve just started our fourth year of weekly sessions. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever put together and I’m well-aware and perfectly comfortable with the reality that it won’t last forever)

A prop from our very first Mystery Night. (H/T to Marissa, who saved it all those years ago!

It’s a bit about content: When it comes to programming, one of my mantras is that if they (your intended audience) can do it or get it at home, they will. This is partly because teens  (particularly those in the age-range that makes up the core of program attendees) aren’t always in control of their own schedules or transportation options. But it is also because a lot people feel like this. I certainly do. (Most people think I’m an extrovert. But I’m truly an ambivert – I love working with the public and the fast pace of my job, but I tenaciously protect my alone-time away from everyone and/or anyone. I draw energy from both, depending on my mood.) When I am designing the specific elements of programs, I try to be conscious about providing the ‘something special’ that our audience can only get from the library-ness of it all. Our big events are built around this concept – from Mystery Night to Escape Rooms to any of our live-action games.

In the end, it’s mostly about rule-breaking: Or, subverting the traditional image of what ‘the library’ is. Those of us who work in and treasure libraries know that they are not  (strictly) pristine and nearly-silent palaces of intellectual pursuit. However, in the imagination of the dominant culture at large, librarians are still stern and humorless ‘shushers’ and libraries demand quiet and serenity. (See: This commercial.) (See also, delightfully, this sketch – NSFW) Mystery Night leans into this idea of libraries and turns it on its head. Yes – players have to use the catalog and navigate the stacks to find stuff. But on this night, after the building is closed to the public, they do that familiar (in theory, if not in practice) search operation with the lights off and ‘things’ lurking in the (pun alert) inky dark trying to scare them and set them on tilt as they go about their mission. There is running. There is screaming. And there is giddy laughter, clever workarounds and librarians at the ready, some to help them if they struggle with their searches and some…dressed up like monsters (or whatever our theme calls for) waiting to creep them out.

This…is not library.

Except that it is. It’s their library. It’s our library.

It’s something unexpected, surprising, and delightful. It can be messy and it can be slightly dangerous (that running combined with some sharp corners: We always have plenty of staff working the event to rein it in as needed, especially with those giddy sixth-graders around. The biggest issue lately has been phones falling out of pockets but we always find them once the lights go back on.) It is always worth the effort, and the rewards extend far beyond the two-and-a-half hours the program runs. It is something that our teens keep talking about for weeks and months and years after they experience it.

I stumbled upon the term ‘froth‘ while doing some background research for a few upcoming presentations on our Escape Room method – it is the excited chatter that happens after a group experiences something together – a game, an event, an amusement park ride, etc. – that instant rehashing and story formation and insider myth-making. It’s a terrible (and squirmy, for me at least) word but, somehow, it fits.

Mystery Night is very frothy. (Eww.) The teens who play recognize the value of this program, and they remember it. And it truly is something they can only get from the library. I think we all should be vigilant about chasing the froth (eww), capturing it and even harnessing it where, and when we can. It’s not the same as feedback. It’s not quantifiable. It’s a feeling. It’s how I know I’ve done a good job and provided a meaningful experience for my audience.

2016’s winners (I swear) with their ‘Cryptid.’ I hope they don’t look it up…

I love finding ways to challenge the public perception of libraries. I love having the opportunity to emphasize the fun of it all (while keeping that educational content in there, even if it’s Mary Poppins-ed over with a heavy dose of entertainment.) One of my favorite things to hear at work is ‘I didn’t know you did that!’ from anyone, but especially from young people: It’s not just a statement: It’s a door that has opened to reveal all sorts of opportunities.

Our teen audience treasures this program. Parents love it too: They are often a bit jealous that they don’t get to have a Mystery night of their own (Someday we’ll have a grown-up version.)

I mean, who wouldn’t want to run around and scream through the library in the dark?

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules

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