Rethinking Outreach & Engagement with 5-Minute Breakout Boxes

By Amber Sewell

Tabling events can be difficult to keep exciting and fresh – swag and candy to entice the students to stop by, flyers detailing library services and resources, and sometimes a spinning wheel for interactivity are all pretty standard fare. When tasked with coming up with a new take on engaging tabling for Banned Books Week at my academic library, I was inspired by a recent book I’d read (Escape Rooms and Other Immersive Experiences in the Library) to try something new.

Breakout rooms are a great way to capture student interest, and the book had described escape rooms in a box: condensed, portable versions of escape rooms that people can play in any location. The scenario the author described involved a breakout box at a conference, encouraging attendees to visit different vendor booths to collect clues. I didn’t need something on that scale, but was intrigued by the idea of condensing the breakout room experience even further.

First, I had to look at my goals with this new outreach method:

  • Keep it snappy. Students are coming to and from classes and meetings; they aren’t going to want to commit too much time to a passing table.
  • Make it active. Students are reluctant to stop by a table if they think you’re just going to talk at them, so an activity is a good reason for them to stick around.
  • Simplicity is key. Having designed breakout games for instruction previously, it’s a fine line to balance between frustrating and too easy. I knew I wanted to err on the side of easy for this activity, as the goal was just to get students to chat with us. Two to three clues were all I needed.
  • Tell a story. The best games, whatever their duration, have a story to tell that bring together all the elements into a cohesive experience.

With that in mind, I gathered together supplies from previous breakout games and constructed my game.

For Banned Books Week, students who stopped by the table were encouraged to help us save books that were being challenged. I typed up fake letters calling for books to be removed from the shelves, used black light ink to hide key codes on clues inside the books, and constructed fake call numbers that, when the books were rearranged, spelled out a clue. When students unlocked the final box, they found the cover of a challenged book that they’d help save and some candy for their trouble. This helped open dialogue about what Banned Books Week was, and how it affects our library.

We designed another iteration for National Day on Writing; this time, students had to race against the clock to add their voice to our community’s story. If they unlocked the box in five minutes, they found a short story where students, faculty, and staff were encouraged to add one sentence, helping steer the story to new places. Props included flyers for our monthly Game Night, a letter stressing the importance of community-building that gave students the combination for a locked box housing a blacklight, and the same toolbox I had used before.

Both of these 5-minute breakout boxes were met with success. Students, faculty, and staff – all of whom broke out in under five minutes – all had positive reactions to the game. We set the tables up with two at a time, so students aren’t kept waiting and can actually race friends if they stop by the table in pairs or groups.

Because of the simple game design, it’s easy enough to adjust the story and props to fit a new theme, making it an ideal go-to outreach and engagement activity. I look forward to constructing new stories and clues to fit upcoming outreach opportunities, keeping these key takeaways in mind for future iterations:

  • Keep it simple. At first, I thought students were solving the clues too easily, but it quickly became apparent that was one of the draws. Students often shied away at first, saying they couldn’t do it, but it was an obvious relief and confidence-booster when they solved all the clues. For outreach, the goal isn’t to frustrate the student; it’s to open lines of communication.
  • Don’t forget marketing! A table with some boxes might look interesting enough to draw some students, but to have a larger reach, don’t forget to make some big signs that will draw passers’-by eyes!
  • Create a dialogue. We want our participants to have fun, but we also want to talk with them about the library and its resources. Make sure when creating the game to have some tie-in to library resources, services, or events as a starting point for conversation, and have information on-hand to give to interested students.

Amber Sewell is a Teaching & Learning Librarian at Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She received  her Masters of Information Sciences from UTK in 2017, and will graduate with her Masters in Instructional Technology in the spring. As a research assistant professor, her responsibilities include everything from teaching information literacy one-shots to designing outreach events to creating an augmented reality monster hunt through the library.


  1. Thank you for this article, Amber. This is a great, refreshing idea for outreach and engagement. I hope to implement something similar at our library in the near future.
    As one of the authors and organizers for that conference breakout case study in the “Escape Rooms” book, I am so glad you got inspiration from our program and just love the cyclical nature of me getting inspiration from what you created. Thanks again!

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