In a corner of the basement of the Sir James Dunn Law Library, behind an unassuming door, is a room on campus like no other: the soft lighting, the solid wooden furniture, the strains of Glenn Miller coming from a Bakelite radio.
A closer look reveals you’re in a lawyer’s office from 70 years ago, complete with a cast-iron typewriter, a crystal decanter and tumblers, a pipe and ashtray and a Brownie camera, not to mention decorative touches such as the fireplace façade and the vintage photos on the walls.
This room that looks like it’s been sealed off from the world since the 1940s is not the former office of some long-retired barrister that’s been preserved, shrine-like. It’s an escape room – like those trendy themed rooms that have been popping up across North America in recent years. Escape rooms are adventure games that task participants with solving a series of puzzles and riddles in a set time limit, all while trapped in a room.
“We designed the escape room to test the research skills of law students in a fun and unusual way,” says Law Librarian David Michels, the brains behind the initial concept.
There is a gap between when the first-year students take the legal research course and when they’re working in firms and using those skills in their second and third years.
“We want to compare the retention of the first-year students, who’ve just had the instruction, to that of the second- and third-year students,” says Michels. Previously, the law librarians had been recruiting volunteers and testing their legal research skills retention in a more traditional way, but David admits it was tough to get volunteers for such an activity.
Navigating legal logic
Enter: the escape room. It was developed and curated by Michels and fellow Law Librarian Hannah Steeves, with funding from a $1,000 grant from the Council of Atlantic University Libraries (CAUL) and a grant for $780 from the Dalhousie Centre for Learning and Teaching.
It’s hard to believe that when he started working on this idea, Michels had never been in an escape room. Michels and Steeves started working on the room in March 2018, testing it with students and faculty. After making some adjustments, they’ve been running the escape room with students since January of this year.
Participants enter the room in groups of five, and then spend an hour solving a mix of logic and legal research puzzles. Michels and Steeves observe the escape room participants from a laptop, just outside the escape room, connected to a web cam in the room so they can hear and see what’s going on.
“A lot of research the first-year students are doing is online and to solve the puzzles in the escape room, the students must use print legal resources,” says Steeves. “So we’re getting back to basics and teaching them some skills they will find useful.”
“You really see the hive mind at work here,” adds Michels. “The groups that communicate well tend to do better in the room.”
This just might be the first escape room in an academic library in Canada, although Steeves notes that many public libraries are doing escape rooms. “We have had a lot of interest from faculty and students from a number of law schools. During the law library conference that was in Halifax last spring, directors from law schools across Canada toured the room,” she says.
Solving the case, confronting the mob
The premise of the Law Library’s escape room is that Halifax’s crown prosecutor has been kidnapped an hour before he is about to take on the mob in court. Without the prosecutor’s papers, there’s no way the crown can win the case. Participants have one hour to solve all the legal research puzzles in the room, leading them to the papers that will solve the case — or the mob walks.
They named the fictional crown prosecutor after a current legal research instructor at the Schulich School of Law, Jonathon Shapiro. “Using her Photoshop skills, Hannah has hidden a number of Jonathan Shapiro Easter eggs in the room,” says Michels.
The room even features a working period phone. “Emily, our intern, figured out how to rewire the phone,” says Michels. “It was a challenge to integrate the phone into Dalhousie’s network, but it works.” Escape room participants use the phone to call for clues and to announce when they’ve solved the room. In addition to getting to use a rotary phone, students also get their fingers on another antiquated piece of period technology: the typewriter.
One of the local antique shops really got into the project, showing Michels items they thought would work in the room whenever he stopped by. “There are so many things we could add, and there’s lots of potential to run the room in different iterations,” he says.
Steeves says they’ll be reviewing the success of the escape room for a report to CAUL. “Even if we determine this was not a good way to measure retention of legal research skills, we have increased participation in library activities through gamification. As a result of that, we’re seeing students spending more time in the library because it’s become a familiar place.”
If you get a chance to visit the Sir James Dunn Law Library’s escape room, take the time to look at everything. The attention to detail that Steeves and Michels have put into the room will make you wonder if they should be in the business of escape rooms full-time.
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