July 10, 2012

Library mystery as outreach and instruction

We do outreach to the community, particularly over the summer, and tomorrow we will have high school students visiting the library for a summer workshop on research skills. Since it's more of a summer camp and these are younger students, we wanted to make sure they would have some fun and be engaged... so we are using murder mysteries as our hands-on activity after a short instruction session to prepare the students for detective work.

I think the mystery I created is fun and it works; I'm sure it would be much better if I had more background in game design (working on that), but this at least will hit all the learning outcomes in a cohesive way:

  1. Students will understand how databases work, and what the difference is between library databases and Google.
  2. Students will be able to construct a basic search using synonyms for a broader search strategy.
  3. Students will be able to locate a book using the library catalog.
  4. Students will be able to evaluate websites using the CRAAP test.
  5. Students will be able to use information appropriately by citing sources in APA style.

Assessment will be done by seeing if they solve the mystery, and since they have to write down answers along the way, we can see some of their search process to get a sense of how much they learned during the instruction portion of the session.

The mystery takes them through using different types of resources in the library, including (hopefully) getting value and comfort in asking a librarian for help. In the end, they wind up in Special Collections where they are spending the afternoon, and will solve the case at the end of the day. We decided to tie our instruction to Special Collections so the students get a more holistic picture of the research process.

I am sure I will notice some snags along the way as this is the first time we are doing this, so I hope to do a follow up post about what went wrong and what could be improved. This would be a great way to gamify orientations to the library for UA freshmen, especially for the smaller student success courses, and could then be tied to retention efforts.

See the mystery with answer key here.
(The narrative makes more sense and is more engaging if you read the full mystery here, below is a synopsis.)

The students start off with information that Wilbur Wildcat (the UA mascot) has been found in the library by one of the exhibits. They need to use the library website to figure out which one and where; they are given a clue that the exhibit features two types of music that were influential in Tucson's culture.

Here they get information the police have collected as well as stats from the medical examiner. They find out Wilbur died from exsiccion, which when they are prompted to look up in Stedman's Medical Dictionary from our health subject guide, they realize that this is actually a synonym for dehydration. From that, they are given a riddle to figure out that a five-letter word for a liquid that can cure dehydration is water. They then need to search the library catalog for a book about water and border issues. Once they find a particular book, they need to go to the stacks to get their next clue.

In this next clue, the students realize an important fact was left off the police report: the suspect left a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary at the scene of the crime, open to the page on aliens. Since the physical copy is locked up at police headquarters, they can luckily search the OED online through the library. They must write down the first use of the term alien in science fiction to realize that the suspect is extra-terrestrial. With this info, they then go to the reference desk and are required to ask a librarian for help in locating an article on UFO sightings in Arizona in the last 50 years. Once they find an article, they must write down the citation in APA style; if the librarian approves that the citation is correct, s/he will hand the team their next clue.

Going to the police with the hypothesis that the killer is an alien would probably get the detectives laughed at, so it is suggested in the next clue to get background information first. A great place to start for background info is CQ Researcher. They must look up UFOs in this database and click on the most recent entry (which, unfortunately, is 1996). They are prompted to read about the University of Arizona professor, James E McDonald, who was a pro-UFO meteorologist. He happened to collect dirt samples from UFO sightings, which are housed in Special Collections (I think this is awesome). They locate his name in CQ Researcher, then must search the catalog to find any works by him as an author in the stacks. They will find the McDonald papers which are housed in Special Collections, along with the dirt, and it is there they will apprehend the killer... who in fact isn't really a killer since the medical examiner made a small mistake in pronouncing Wilbur dead: he was simply in a coma from dehydration and just needs to drink some water (keeping it PG).

I'm excited to see how this goes, and how well my portion of the mystery ties into what Special Collections will be covering. More next time...


  1. This sounds like a wonderful way to engage teens! I'm going to share it with my coworkers. Definitely interested in a follow-up post about how it works out. :)

  2. What a great idea! A mystery is the perfect way to package research skills in a fun way.