Novel treasure hunt explores Earth and Mineral Sciences Library

October 16, 2005

Today's libraries are not just for books, computers and magazines -- one university library now has its own geocache thanks to a Penn State librarian.

Geocaching, a combination of a treasure hunt, orienteering with the aid of geographic information systems (GPS) and a little bit of learning, seems perfect for an Earth Sciences library. In geocaching, participants obtain the location of a geocache from a geocaching web site, use GPS to arrive in the area of the cache, and then follow clues or simply hunt for the cache. The cache, which is usually a box, contains a logbook and small items left by the cache owner and other items left in exchange by those discovering the box.

"The libraries wanted to reduce anxiety and introduce freshmen to the library during orientation, " says Linda Musser, head of the Fletcher L. Byrom Earth and Mineral Sciences Library at Penn State. "This year's overall theme was sports and geocaching is a hot new sport. We wanted to have some fun."

The geocache set up by Musser is a little unusual in that it is inside a building. GPS systems do not work well inside, so she could provide only the location of the building as GPS coordinates. From that point, clues must lead the player to the library itself and then on to the cache.

"It was mostly freshmen who participated," Musser told participants at the 117th annual meeting of the Geological Society of America meeting today (Oct. 16) in Salt Lake City. "Once in the library they had to do an activity to find the cache."

First the students had to find the clue sheet, hidden in plain sight in the library. From there it was a fairly easy task to read the information on the libraries classification system - the Library of Congress system - and then do the simple activity to locate the cache. Simply walking around the library and scanning the shelves will not work because the cache is a box that looks very much like an old book.

The idea of a library geocache came from the increased popularity of geocaching and the recent implementation of a joint project by the National Parks Service and the Geological Society of America called Earthcaching.

"Geocaching is a problem in national parks because the parks do not allow the caches to be placed inside their borders," says Musser. "But, the Parks Service does want to draw people into the parks."

Earthcaching is identical to geocaching but there is no box and the objective is to see a geological formation, event or anomaly. Earthcaching becomes a search for knowledge rather than a search for prizes. Twisting this concept just a bit, geocaching in a library incorporates both knowledge and a few small prizes.

In fact, those totally familiar with the Library of Congress classification numbers could skip doing the small amount of math necessary to calculate the cache number because the cache is shelved under the official number for geocaching.

"A few students, once they saw the letter designation of the caching number just scanned the shelves in that section of the library," says Musser.

Even these students had to find the proper section and scan the shelves, which satisfied at least part of the intent of the geocache as an orientation tool.

Musser submitted the Penn State Earth and Mineral Sciences Library geocache as an official geocache and the cache was approved. It is now open to the public. There are, however a few problems with going public.

"Outdoor geocaches are always available, but the library is not available 24 hours a day seven days a week," says Musser. "We are open 90 plus hours a week and I hope that is enough."

Also, because the cache is inside a building, additional clues become necessary, but Musser believes that they can overcome these things. As to the appropriateness of a geocache in a library, according to Musser, with the advent of computers and digital information, libraries are changing, although in her opinion they are no less important.

"We need to offer more recreational stuff in the libraries," says the Penn State librarian. "Students find it hard to find a quiet place on campus. More and more they use the library as a meeting place, as a study place, and as a comfortable place to relax and lounge."

Another recent innovation in the library is a study break jigsaw puzzle. The first puzzle used was 500 pieces, but students completed it in less than a day. The current puzzle has 1,000 pieces and is coming together much more slowly.

Penn State

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