Last week was one of the most stressful, but also most satisfying, weeks I’ve had at work. That week, we did our “rook tours” which are orientations to the library for the new Freshmen entering the Corps of Cadets (our school’s population is around 50% ROTC). For three days a week before classes start, we get 12 groups of Cadets (between 25 and 50 at a time) coming into the library for a tour. For as long as anyone who works at the library can remember, we’ve done a pretty standard tour. We sat them down and explained the rules of the library and who it’s named after. We then walked them around each floor of the library describing what was there. From my experience doing this for three years previous, students seemed weary and unengaged and, based on the questions we’d get at the reference desk in subsequent weeks, forgot everything they heard the minute they left the library (if not sooner). It was passive and it was boring.

When I was named the Head of Instructional Initiatives, the Rook Tours were the first thing that I wanted to tackle. I wanted to make them engaging, experiential, and maybe even a little fun. I immediately thought of doing a scavenger hunt, and after reading about some other schools who’d done similar orientations, I settled upon that as a good way of getting students familiar with the library. To make up for not taking them up and down the library, I figured we could make a movie that would introduce them to what’s on each floor.

Our movie is a testament to the fact that you don’t always need a lot of time, talent or technology to make a half-way decent orientation movie. When it was less than three weeks before rook tours and my colleague, Josh, hadn’t started on the movie (not his fault, he had a million other things on his plate), I suggested that we should just take pictures of the library and sew them together into a movie instead of trying to film and edit something full-motion, which would have taken much longer. So I went around the library taking photos of everything. Josh put those together into an order that made sense and then managed to create a pretty darn entertaining movie with his folksy narration. I don’t think it even suffers much from the lack of technical sophistication or full-motion. We got lots of laughs from students, some applause, and a number of students asked if the movie was going to be available on YouTube. Freshman are a tough audience, and I’m really impressed that Josh was able to put something so entertaining together in a matter of days. I also created a very brief screencast that introduced students to the library website and the features that they’d need to use during the scavenger hunt. We showed both together before the students were sent off on the scavenger hunt.

We plan to make a better movie during this year with work study students, but I was pretty pleased with how things turned out this time around.

For the scavenger hunt, I made a list of the things that it would be important for Freshmen to know about the library before they (hopefully) come in with their English 101 class. There were certain rooms I wanted them to be able to find (the Learning Support Center, group study rooms, etc.) as well as certain items (the new periodicals, etc.). I also wanted them to be able to look up a book in the catalog and find it on the shelf. Finally, I wanted them to be able to find the research guides on our website and to know how to IM a librarian from our MeeboMe widget. So I built all of those goals into the 6 separate sets of clues/tasks I created for five teams. We’d break each group of students up into five teams and each would have a separate bunch of clues to look for. But no matter what group they were in, they’d be developing the same basic skills.

Doing a scavenger hunt is exceedingly difficult when your orientation is scheduled the way our rook tours are. We had to pull off the same scavenger hunt 12 times, which meant hoping that the five sets of clues were still where they were supposed to be each and every time. For each thing students had to find, I put 15 clues (on color-coded slips of paper) in an envelope and put that envelope at the location they were supposed to visit. The students were supposed to just take one clue out and leave the envelope for the next group. Unlikely with the average Freshman population, but I knew that our Rooks tend to be exceedingly polite due to the fact that it’s drilled into them in the military part of their training. For each clue, I also kept a backup envelope in my office with about 25 more copies of the clues.

While we did have a couple of mishaps with books being put back in the wrong place, envelopes disappearing, etc., it went a lot better than I thought. My colleague, Josh, and I tried to check on the clues after every session or two and I was pleased by how few disasters we had. No group ended up not having a clue at their location. But still, it caused me a lot of anxiety throughout those three days. Next time, I plan to have people take shifts for checking on the clues before the next group comes. It’s too much for two people.

My other huge worry was timing. I had my husband (who isn’t a fan of libraries and doesn’t really know the dewey decimal system or the layout of our library) try doing one set of the clues and it took him about 15 minutes to get through it. I thought for the average Freshman, it would probably take 20-25, though really I had no idea. Would they pay attention to the movie and remember which floor things were on? Would they be able to figure out how to use the library catalog and then find a book on the shelf? I sweat bullets over the first group on Monday morning, but was relieved when one team got back in 15 minutes and the others made it back within 10 minutes of that. A couple of groups didn’t quite finish, but they were usually only one clue short of being done, so not bad.

I think they definitely learned a lot during the activity, which is fantastic. So many students give up on the library because they don’t know how to find a book or they don’t know how to get help. By having them learn these things in a game situation, I think it made it more tempting to try to figure things out on their own (well, in groups) instead of giving up. The best part was seeing how much fun they were having. The students got really competitive about the scavenger hunt and would rush around at light speed trying to get through it before any of the other teams did. It was also a great team-building activity. Students were really proud of themselves when they finished. We got comments from their Cadre (the upperclassmen in charge of the Rooks) that they’d wished their orientation had been like that. Awesome!

It’s always hard to try something new after doing it a certain way for years and years, so probably the biggest difficulty was with some staff members who were very accustomed to a certain kind of rook tour and weren’t quite clear on the details of how these needed to be done. But once each librarian had worked with one group, they had a much easier time facilitating it the second time. I’m sure it’ll be even easier next year.

I spent the few weeks before orientation really nervous about this new model. It’s easy to say that something is boring and suggest a change, but when the responsibility for its success or failure is 100% on you, you start to worry about whether or not your idea was really a good one. I had lots of doubts. It certainly would have been safer to do things the way we’d done them forever (and less stressful for me!), but I couldn’t be happier that things turned out as they did. Risk-taking can be super-scary, but it’s better to try something new than to stick with something that just isn’t working (especially if the students aren’t learning anyway). The worst thing that can happen is that it won’t work well and you’ll learn from it to make it even better next year.

Next stop, improving how we teach and assess English 101 library sessions. No pressure! ;)