Anyone clinging to the tired notion that libraries are dour, stodgy places clearly hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been going on at the McGill Library for the past year.
The Library has been examining how to incorporate “serious play” – an approach to learning that emphasizes creativity, exploration and a sense of fun – into the way it promotes its extensive collections and rich archival history. The Library’s Play On! event series has featured presentations by Disney animator Mike Wiesmeier, award-winning puppeteer Jesse Stong and a range of librarians and scholars with expertise in games and the ways in which games can be used for educational purposes.
There have also been some inventively playful initiatives involving a spooky online crime mystery, a retro-themed quiz game and a colourful new book filled with visual treats – endeavours that have all highlighted McGill’s rich history in some way.
English professor Nathalie Cooke, the associate dean of McGill’s Rare & Special Collections, Osler, Art and Archives (ROAAr), spearheaded these projects with an eye towards engaging the University community.
Although the Library’s recent online game offerings were originally targeted towards incoming and prospective students and their parents, Cooke was pleasantly surprised to discover the games have attracted players from around the world.
“We’ve had some pretty exciting feedback, and from some unusual places,” says Cooke. Participants have logged in from across Canada, the United States, Japan, the Netherlands, France and Hong Kong.
“When we first launched last summer, we imagined we were appealing to Generation Z, but the games have really caught on, especially during COVID-19,” says Cooke. “We’re very excited about our [newest] game, because it’s going to look and feel very different.”
While the Library’s previous two online alternate reality games – Raising Spirits: A Timely Diversion, and Raising Spirits 2 – invited players to solve a true crime mystery while exploring McGill’s historic spaces, Quiz That So? features a whimsical, 1950s-inspired trivia format that reveals little-known McGill stories as players search for seven experts across campus. All three games are not a race to finish, but rather designed to encourage participants to take their time discovering the marvels of McGill. Pioneering McGillians like Maude Abbott (a trailblazing cardiology expert) and Harriet Brooks (Canada’s first female nuclear physicist) make appearances.
To develop the games, Cooke’s team worked with library archivists, graphic designers, programmers and librarians. For potential students that couldn’t physically tour the campus, the virtual experience – which invites players to seek out McGill’s many nooks and crannies – has proven to be a fantastic marketing tool, notes Cooke.
The grand finale for the library’s Play On! series is the publication of AMAZE: A McGill A to Z Experience, which showcases the Library’s historic treasures. The movable interactive alphabet book features artworks, graphics, books, manuscripts and physical objects that leap off the page, says Cooke.
“We wanted to amaze and wow people with the look of the book, so it’s a visual extravaganza,” she explains.
The Library’s new media & digitization administrator Greg Houston prepared the artwork. The editorial team for the book included Cooke, Houston, Hannah Deskin, BA’19, Jennifer Garland,MLIS’07, Elis Ing and Christopher Lyons, DipEd’94, MLIS’04. The project benefited from creative collaboration with renowned British paper engineers Papersmyths.
Timed to coincide with McGill’s celebration of its 200th anniversary, AMAZE casts the spotlight on some of the most colourful items from Library’s unique collections, including dancing marionettes from the Rosalynde Stearn Puppet Collection, eye-catching recruitment posters from the Canadian War Poster Collection, drawings and caricatures by Arthur Lismer, the famed Group of Seven member who taught at McGill, and works by 19th century artist Elizabeth Gwillim, celebrated for her vivid portraits of birds and fish.
Some of the most beautiful pages in the book include sliding skeletons on the ‘A for Anatomy’ page, pop-up butterflies on the ‘I for Insects’ page and Cooke’s favourite, ‘P for Printing Press,’ which focuses on McGill’s Columbian press, one of only 32 in the world designed by American engineer and inventor George Clymer, and described in the book as a “precious piece of printing’s past.”
“It beautifully illustrates our recently restored printing press, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary at the same time [as McGill],” says Cooke.
“I think the audience for this book is going to be wide-ranging, including parents and donors,” says Cooke. “We’ve already piqued the interest of staff members. I have one sample copy at the Library, and I get asked every day to bring it all over the place because everyone wants to look through it.”
Cooke believes the timing for the entire Play On event series was perfect: Living through the COVID-19 pandemic collectively turned out to be serendipitous for the project, she says.
“People are getting tired of TV binging and passive entertainment, so one of the things that happened with both the digital games and the pop-up book is that we’ve come up with interactive, immersive tools that engage,” explains Cooke. “These virtual environments seem to be very popular for a wide range of people, and we couldn’t have known this in advance.”
AMAZE is available through McGill’s bookstore, Le James.