3 August 2020
Norbert at the Window. Image credit: Illinois Prairie District Public Library.

When the initial coronavirus shutdown came in early March, no one had any idea long it would actually last. Libraries closed with little or no warning. Books that were checked out could not be returned, new books could not be checked out, and all the programs and activities that libraries pride themselves on were cancelled. It took a little while, but libraries and librarians rose to the challenge, creating virtual programming for their patrons. One popular trend has been the creation of “virtual escape rooms,” essentially an online quiz made using Google Forms (or a similar utility) for participants to submit puzzle answers. They can be created around any subject one can think of, so why not the census?

The federal census had been planned for release in April, with a short window of opportunity to complete the form and a push from the government encouraging residents to approach their local libraries for help completing the census. Planning kits and promotional materials were liberally distributed. Posters, pamphlets, and handouts came in bulk, but in the wake of stay-at-home orders, both patrons and librarians were left wondering how the count would proceed.

Illinois Prairie District Public Library’s main branch is home to a bearded dragon named Norbert. If the census were counting everyone, would it not count Norbert? He is as much a part of the IPDPL community as any of the patrons. What was initially planned as a virtual escape room turned into more of an educational quiz, Norbert’s Census Adventure. Each step of the web adventure focuses on one of the questions on the census, with the goal of helping Norbert find the correct information to complete his census. Each question in Norbert’s Census Adventure serves a dual purpose. Primarily, each question is designed to mimic the questions found on the census, creating a sense of familiarity for those who may be hesitant to complete the census questionnaire. The questions also provide information about the IPDPL library system via its website, and some in-depth information about bearded dragons and where they come from. While it does not require a lot of the puzzle-solving skills virtual escape rooms require, the questions on Norbert’s Census Adventure do ask participants to do some online research and activities to get the correct answers.

The game was published in early June. While that may seem late, because of this year’s unique circumstances, the reporting deadline for the 2020 census was extended until September 30. Additionally, as of June 1, nearly a full third of the country had yet to be counted. In Woodford County, it was estimated that 25% of resident had not completed the census by that date. A free counting book, published by the census bureau, was offered as an optional prize to anyone who completed the adventure.

IPDPL plans to continue offering virtual escape rooms and web adventures even after resuming in-person programming. They are a great way to encourage team building, and they allow participants to do a “deep dive” into a single subject. The Google Forms utility has a user-friendly interface that makes creating a quiz extremely easy. Puzzles can be presented as codes that have to be deciphered, mazes to be solved, jigsaw puzzles to be completed, with fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice questions to be answered to proceed. Additionally, the Google Forms interface provides feedback on participant answers, so designers can gauge if a question is too difficult or too easy.

Follow the included link to experience Norbert’s Census Adventure or do a quick Google search for “library virtual escape room.” There are dozens to choose from on a wide variety of subjects. Once the mechanics are understood, creating a virtual escape room becomes easy! Good luck!

Our guest blogger today is Donna Forbis. Donna is the Marketing & Events Coordinator at the Illinois Prairie District Public Library in Metamora, Illinois.