Escape from the Okefenokee Swamp

Library Special Collections Hosts
Escape Room Experience

Zach S. Henderson Library invited visitors to embark on a spooky adventure to the Okefenokee Swamp, without even having to go outside or apply insect repellent.

Last October, the library created an Okefenokee escape room experience, an interactive game where a small group of players find clues, solve puzzles and accomplish tasks in one or more themed areas to complete a goal or “escape” the room in a limited amount of time.

The experience was built around Professor Emeritus Delma Eugene Presley’s collection of original documents, photographs, audio and visual recordings from Francis Harper’s work in the Okefenokee Swamp between 1912 and 1952 — artifacts housed in the Henderson Library Special Collections department.

Harper was a Cornell-trained naturalist and biologist who went to the Okefenokee Swamp to document not only the flora and fauna of the swamp, but also the history and culture of the Okefenokee people. His collection includes the region’s distinctive folk speech, tales, music, customs, home remedies and beliefs which were largely lost when the people moved away after the land was protected as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1937.

An Immersive Learning Experience

“We took some of the materials of the Harper collection and made surrogates that looked really authentic,” said Autumn Johnson, Special Collections librarian.”We built an immersive experience where visitors start in a modern room where they imagine they are a researcher. They’re interested in Frances Harper, but they need to get more into his mindset.They hear that there are some lost film rolls he had and they want to find them.Then the visitors go into the next room where we re-created the swamp of late 1938 with Harper’s research area, his tents, hanging moss, wildlife sound effects, everything.”

Johnson and her colleague Nikki Cannon-Rech, research services librarian, built exercises for escape room participants to reinforce researching Special Collections.The gamers found most of Harper’s field notes, but some were missing.

“We needed the field notes from January 6, 1918. That one notebook was the escape room code,” said Johnson. “When we did our exercise after the game, we asked participants why wouldn’t a field notebook from 1918 exist? When they couldn’t answer, I let them know the notebook was missing because of World War I. So we were able to teach researching the archive and thinking about primary sources.”

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

The feedback on the escape room was overwhelmingly positive. And the artifacts in the Harper collection are just the tip of the iceberg of what is available to researchers, students and the community in Special Collections.

“There are over 11,000 items in Special Collections housed in the ARC (automatic retrieval system), so we have a lot to choose from when we do another escape room,” said Johnson.

The ARC is a huge warehouse-style room with metal bins stacked to the ceiling filled with Special Collections materials. Computerized robotic arms find the bin requested and deliver it to a retrieval space directed by a few keyboard commands.

“Special collections are housed here for a number of reasons,” said Johnson. “It’s a more stable environment for the collection. Humidity and temperature are controlled. If there’s a power outage, the conditions remain stable, which is the most important part in storing these artifacts.”

Johnson also wants people to understand the mission of Special Collections.

“We are not a museum,” said Johnson. “We’re not just amassing old stuff. Our primary objective is to make sure we have a researchable collection that’s of value to researchers, students and the general public. Many people are intimidated to use us, so we really try to get the collections out there in classrooms and do outreach programs like the escape room.”

More than 150 visitors participated in the escape room exercise during its two-week run, and after their experience, their main question was when the library would host another one.

“We’re planning another escape room in the fall,” said Johnson. “We’re letting the collections drive us. So stay tuned for another memorable experience. The last one was very out there, but it was also very successful.” —Liz Walker