Escape rooms, binoculars, Wi-fi hotspots: How library services are changing with the times

The Clemens Mill branch of the Idea Exchange is hosting escape rooms based on the popular Netflix show Stranger Things. It isn't the only library that's doing things a little differently.

The emphasis is on learning and sharing information — and not necessarily on reading books

Librarian Kim Toth has organized Stranger Things-themed escape rooms at the Clemens Mill Idea Exchange for the past two years. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

While many teenagers might spend a hot July day at the movie theatre or the mall, a group of Cambridge teens spent part of their afternoon Friday at the library.

But it wasn't to catch up on their readings for the coming school year. Instead, they spent part of their afternoon working their way out of an escape room, based on the popular Netflix show Stranger Things.

"TV and especially Netflix is such a part of our upbringing, so the fact that they're able to incorporate that at a library of all places, I think that's pretty cool," said Mariam El Ghamudi, 17, who took part in the escape room and who also works as a shelver at the Idea Exchange.

Teenagers Brenna Crothall, Aubrey Porter and Mariam El Ghamudi solved an escape room at the library Friday. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Brenna Crothall, 15, said she thinks many people are turned off by libraries simply because they don't like books — and that she appreciates the library offering alternatives.

"I feel like it's a good thing to have things other than books that are kinda related to creativity," she said.

Library assistant Kim Toth, who organized the event, said escape rooms are a "natural fit" for libraries given their emphasis on problem solving and teamwork. Plus, she said it's a good opportunity for teenagers to meet new people while they're out of school.

"We try to have groups of three to five, so sometimes that means you're grouped together with people you don't know and by the end of the event maybe you've met a new friend," Toth said.

What libraries are doing differently

More broadly, Toth said contemporary libraries are all moving toward a greater emphasis on learning and community-building, whether that comes through books or other media.

That idea rings true to Murray McCabe, chief librarian for Wellington County, who said his branches offer a range of tools, including 3D printers, binoculars, sewing machines and microscopes.

Some services are geared toward the specific needs of the rural region, he said.

Because of the agriculture industry in Wellington County, the Hillsburgh branch has a commercial kitchen where many visitors prepare food for sale at farmers' markets.

And, because some people in the county don't have internet access at home, the library offers portable Wi-Fi hotspots, which can be checked out from the library, allowing students and entrepreneurs to work from home.

Going forward, McCabe said he hopes to offer more online news services through the library — and to adapt to technological change, whatever that may be.

"Libraries are a door to learning and lifelong learning," he said. "It's important we fill the knowledge gap between those that are not accustomed to using technology and those that want to learn."

Wellington County offers 70 internet hotspots for check-out, which are popular with entrepreneurs, students and those who homeschool their children. (Submitted by Murray McCabe)