Couldn’t Escape the Idea: UnLOCk the Box

This is a guest post by Dr. Kellie Taylor, Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator at the Library 2018-2019. Examples of her escape room idea using Library materials, described below, can be found on the Library’s webpage for families as downloadable PDF activity kits: UnLOCk the Box: Sanborn Maps and UnLOCk the Box: The Culper Code.

Have you ever heard of, or tried, an escape room? As an elementary educator, I first learned about escape rooms as they relate to the classroom. After testing the idea in my own classroom, I found them valuable for nurturing critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration skills, and for presenting content in an engaging way. During my time serving as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator at the Library of Congress, in the Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives Office (PLOI) in 2018-2019, I had the opportunity to try the escape room idea personally, and I was hooked. And I realized that creating an escape room or puzzle experience would be a great way to connect not only educators and students with the amazing collection at the Library but the general public as well.

To build these experiences, a team within the PLOI worked to create a variety of initial puzzles for testing, drawing on some of the staff members’ own favorite pieces. The collaboration resulted in puzzles that used a variety of the Library’s collections including the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Washington, D.C., Joseph Collins proposed utopian calendar, correspondence found in the George Washington Papers, and various versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” lyrics. All the resources used were digital so that eventually puzzles could be shared online as well as used by those visiting the Library.

A visitor smiles in front of a model of the locked box described here

A visitor smiles after completing one of the UnLOCk the Box challenges

Once the initial puzzles had been developed, the team began to work with other departments within the Library to get feedback. To test the puzzles, we needed a box to unlock. The team wanted a box that was relevant to the Library. Archival boxes sometimes known as “Hollinger boxes” are used throughout the Library’s collection to store materials. So, my elementary engineering skills were useful in creating a box for the puzzles from the Hollinger boxes available. The final design required the use of the engineering design process from brainstorming ideas, developing a solution, testing and improving, to sharing the final design.

Testing continued after my fellowship time at the Library of Congress. We were thrilled to see the continued improvement being made for in-person users and now for online users of the Library’s resources. Online users not only have access to the puzzles, but, by using materials from around the house, can create their own lock boxes with a process similar to what was used in the Hollinger Box design.

It has been very exciting to see the progress being made in testing the puzzles prior to the Library closure and the work being done to make the puzzles accessible to the public and educators through the family engagement website. I have enthusiastically shared these resources with my families and hope to test the puzzles with my students when we are back for in-person instruction. I hope you all experience the same joy in creating your boxes and solving the puzzles at home.


  1. Amy W.
    January 27, 2021 at 12:22 pm

    I love the UnLOCk the Box activities! How fun! Thank you, Kellie. These are great models to use to help create our own!

  2. Cheryl
    January 27, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    OH how fun! Love this! Love this!

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