The Lost Librarian is a ground-breaking escape room for inquisitive explorers of all ages. Using interactive books, employing creative technology, groups of up to six people experience a 60-minute journey, uncovering a fantastical retelling of the Devon Witches and the legacy that they have left behind.
The project is the brainchild of Puppet Place resident artists Lizzie Johnson, Kyle Hirani, Matt Gibbs, and Chat Akula, and the installation was commissioned by Libraries Unlimited. We sat down with writer and narrative designer, Matt Gibbs, to find out more about this innovative installation.
The Lost Librarian is an innovative ‘escape room’ project that brings together art, design, technology, and storytelling. Can you tell us about the idea and story, and how the project got off the ground?
MG: The Lost Librarian began at the end of 2018, when Lizzie (Designer, Fabricator and Project Manager) and Kyle (Roboticist and Creative Technologist) were commissioned by Libraries Unlimited to devise and produce an interactive creative technology experience for Exeter’s libraries as part of their Evolve programme with funding from Arts Council England. The aim was to get more teenagers engaging with the library. Lizzie and Kyle approached me soon after to help them shape the narrative and puzzles for the books that they wanted to create; wooden artefacts that would live on the shelves of any library, each containing a different puzzle and an element of story.
In January 2019, the three of us began exploring approaches, not only to the narrative, but the sorts of creative technology – capacitive touch, light, motion, and sound sensors, magnetic viewfinders, thermochromic paint, etc – that we wanted to incorporate into the puzzles. We explored several themes related to the history of Exeter, but eventually settled on a fictional retelling of the Bideford Witch Trials; three Devon women who were accused of witchcraft and condemned in 1682 at the Exeter Assizes. It is a subject that is very much aligned with our own interests, enabling us to explore feminism, persecution of women, and even fake news, in an engaging way through these books.
The Lost Librarian’s first run in Exeter’s Central, St. Thomas, and Topsham libraries was a great success; with over 20 books being spread across those locations, forming a puzzle trail that the public could freely interact with, as well as being setup especially for Library Late events, where the library was opened up to older audiences to explore and play.
Based on the success of the initial run and these events, Libraries Unlimited commissioned us again, this time to reimagine and rework the installation as a touring exhibit for all of Devon libraries for 2020. This gave us the opportunity to completely re-examine what worked and what didn’t, and collaborate with Youth and SEND groups to gather their input and feedback. All was going well… and then Covid 19 changed the Arts world.
But, after three lockdowns and reworking the installation and creative technology for a post Covid world, the Lost Librarian is on tour again!
The Lost Librarian project combines many skillsets including fabrication, technology, and interactive storytelling. Can you tell us more about your collaboration? What were the main challenges? What are you most proud of?
MG: There’s a whole host of talented folk involved in the current touring version of the Lost Librarian. Joining the core creative team is Chat Akula (Robotocist) who has written the complex coding for the new books with Kyle. In addition, we’ve been lucky enough to work with: Nick Wilsher (Creative Technologist), Luke Gregg (Fabricator & Carpenter), Helena Houghton (Fabricator & Prop Maker), Katie Hood (Fabricator & Prop Maker), Est Johnson (Prop Maker), Cat Rock (Voice Director), Michael Basri (Composer), and Sheila Atim (as the voice of Molly Allison).
It’s been exciting to work with so many people, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Covid 19 has been our biggest obstacle; the stop-start nature of our work and access to the studio at Puppet Place has been hard. We also had to redesign the experience with Covid in mind, bringing it off the library shelves and onto three podiums to make access and cleaning easier. We’ve even had to remove creative technology we’d planned to employ – for example, breath based puzzles were immediately no longer suitable!
But we can all take pride in handling these obstacles, finding solutions and ways forward together, and with the help of Libraries Unlimited who have been hugely supportive throughout.
Where has the Lost Librarian been run? What have participants gained from the experience? What have they enjoyed the most?
MG: The first leg of the Lost Librarian tour began in July and covered Exeter, Barnstaple, and Newton Abbot libraries. And feedback has been wonderful and overwhelmingly positive so far from the families and groups that have experienced it.
From our testing and the feedback from Libraries Unlimited, participants often get swept up and engaged in the experience. The wonder people experience interacting with these wooden artefacts, especially the capacitive touch elements – enabling them to trace their finger over wooden surfaces as they would use their mobile devices – is a joy to behold!
What is usually an hour of play, feels like only half an hour has passed for most folk, and everyone enjoys the increasing levels of difficulty and variety in the puzzles. This sparks group collaboration; and that, coupled with the narrative, seems to set it apart from escape room experiences. There was a lovely piece in The Bookseller about the tour that sums it up well.
One delightful aspect we discovered is that because Molly, our Lost Librarian, voiced beautifully by Sheila Atim, reads the ‘story’ of the first book out to participants, they then take it upon themselves, usually in turns, to read the later books to each other. That too, is a joy to hear!
Are there plans to tour the Lost Librarian again in the near future? And/or do you have any similar projects in the pipeline that you can share?
MG: The Lost Librarian has just finished a run at The Hayridge in Cullompton, and is about to head to Tavistock (from 23rd October) and then Okehampton (from 13th November). We’re then having it back at Puppet Place over Christmas, where it will be having a bit of TLC, before heading out again to more Devon libraries in Spring.
As for other creative technology and narrative led projects, the short answer is ‘Yes!’ As a group; Lizzie, Kyle, Chat, and I enjoy collaborating and working together and there are many other ideas that we wish to explore at the intersection of play, narrative, design, and creative technology. There is one we have been talking about developing for a couple of years now – and we have just received an Arts Council Grant to help fund the R&D for that!
Interview by Emma Windsor
More about the team
Vāsthu (Kyle Kyle Hirani & Chat Akula)
Founded in 2017 by Kyle Kyle Hirani & Chat Akula, Vāsthu provides R&D services for projects at the intersection of Arts and Robotics. Clients include, Amalgam, Pif-Paf, and the Center for Fine Print and Research. Visit the website: www.vasthu.co.uk
Elizabeth Johnson is a designer, fabricator, and project manager, whose work includes interactive installations for The National Trust, and work for Daphne Wright, Bristol Old Vic, Raucous, Rusty Squid, and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Facebook: ElizabethJohnsonMakes
A WGGB award nominated writer and narrative designer, Matt Gibbs’ work includes games, such as Battlefield 1 and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Visit the website: www.mattgibbs.net