Friday, May 27, 2011

I Found the Future at the New York Public Library! (A Post-Game Post).

Entering the Library
I could not be prouder to have been one of the "select group of 500 nerds" chosen to participate in the New York Public Library's "Find the Future", an all night scavenger-hunt game and writing event that took place on Friday, May 21. How ironic that it has taken me nearly a week to write a post about an overnight writing event, but we all have to grapple with our day jobs...


When I first walked into the library last Friday, through the marble columns guarded by Patience and Fortitude, I was not sure what to expect. I was mostly surrounded by strangers, but we all had one thing in common - a passion for writing, a sense of adventure, and a desire to change the world. We were gathering to find the future, by examining our past.
500 "Nerds" Gather in Astor Hall

The Doors are Locked!

True to what we had been told, we were in fact "locked" in the library. Shortly after 8pm, the doors were shut and a security guard stood watch over us. We were then greeted by our team leaders for the evening, Jane McGonigal, playing the part of Patience, and Chelsea (last name?), who would lead the Fortitude team. We were instructed to follow whichever leader represented our greater strength. As patience is not my virtue, I followed Chelsea/Fortitude to the library's Rose Main Reading Room. (My Canadian friends, see older post, opted for Patience. Luckily, I found one old friend among the 500, Jen O., and we followed Fortitude together).
Gathering in the Rose Reading Room

Fortitude Beckons Us to Follow

We learned that no person had ever before stayed overnight in the library, save library caretakers and security guards, and that we 500 were making history, and kicking off the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building's Centennial Anniversary.

We were told that while "lots of books" had been written in the library, never had 500 people attempted to write one book together. There were editors on hand to assist, tech gurus, a book art designer, and even a book binder, as the original plan was to have the book bound by the event's end/sunrise (more on that later...).

Jane McGonigal
Out of more than 5000 applicants, McGonigal told us that we all had "the right combination of courage, imagination and creativity." At this point, my curiosity was nearly killing me, and I could not wait to learn more! (See, no patience...) Finally, after being informed that our book would focus on "100 Ways to Make History," and that we would be the first group ever to play the "Find the Future" game (although the hope is that millions will follow in our footsteps, literally or virtually), we were given some of the "secrets" of the game. I hesitate to reveal them here on this public blog, but since you can probably derive them from the game's website, I will give you a little preview.

Gamers Scanning QR Codes
In essence, there are over 100 "powerful" objects "hidden" in plain sight around the library. As I would come to realize later that evening, the library is not merely a place to find books, but it is a museum full of national and world treasures, from first editions of classic literature, beautiful frescos, and other priceless art and artifacts. Each of the objects we would find represented someone who "stood up and said or did something extraordinary," according to McGonigal. Using library maps to lead us to each object on our quest, we were instructed to scan QR codes near each item we located (the little bar codes you have probably seen popping up over the last year or so-- you can download a program on your smartphone to read them), in order to "power up" and receive one of ten special powers from which we might derive strength to unlock "stories that have never been told." Each object was linked to a question about the future, ways to make history, and similar ideas. Strict "writing" was not the only way to compose a story in response to these quesitons. Participants could write, draw, take a photograph, or come up with other clever mediums in which to focus their strength.

Signing Up for Stories
One of most difficult caveats was that there were 100 objects, but 500 people. Thus, we had to come together, work in teams and share ideas. Once an individual or group of participants were ready to begin a story related to an object they had found, they were required to "sign up" for that story on large easels at the front of the Reading Room, so that others would know they should seek other quests, as the final book would have a page limit.

Throughout the night, various rooms that we might need to continue our quest in closed, so we also needed to keep on eye on the clocks. One of the most memorable moments for me was when, upon completing a task/treasure hunt in the library's Genealogy Room, I instantly located electronic records for nearly all of my known relatives and ancestors that have lived in the United States. Although my family arrived mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I was never able to find any information in more typical places, such as Ellis Island. I was so moved to have found these records that I was brought to tears, especially as I read the names of loved ones who were more recently deceased, family members that have touched and changed my life forever. I also learned that, while my ancestors are all from Eastern Europe (as far as I know), many came to America on ships sailing out of Western Europe cities such as Liverpool and Naples. One relative had come from Naples in 1945. I shuddered and shed another tear as I wondered if he had been a Holocaust survivor, as I know some of my relatives were (and some, unfortunately, were not...).

The Stacks
Another really interesting area we came to explore was what is known only as "The Stacks." On any given day, only 30 people are permitted to enter this underground area of the library (7 levels!), where the majority of the building's collection is kept in 75 miles of shelfs. As we walked through a special guided tour, I imagined all of the history that must be hiding in those books. (And, yes, I also thought of "Ghostbusters"...). It was mesmerizing.

For the quests, I ended up working in a team of eight Fortitude members, including myself. Our "squad captain," Erin M., was sweet, intelligent and perky, and a great leader. Although we began the night finding items together and collaborating on stories, as the evening began to fade, so did our team members. By 3am, there were only five of us left. Team "Super Awesome," as we titled ourselves, was losing stamina. But we persevered and, through tired eyes and with much fortitude, we made it until the morning light.

My other team members were Jenny O. (the friend I had met up with), Einat T., Jennifer W., Geovanni R., Lauren A., and Karen W. I really enjoyed getting to know them and working on quests and stories together. Each of us had been selected to "Find the Future" based on a 140 character answer to the question, "By the year 2021 I will be the first person to....". Jenny's creative answer was that she would go back in time to convince Louisa May Alcott to change the ending of "Little Women" (I won't say what the change would be, in case you haven't read it). Einat's ambition was to become the first female secretary general of the United Nations. We certainly had some go-getters among us.

My Note Seeking a Message
Another fun task that we were each given, as if the treasure hunt and story-writing were not enough, was that each of us would have the opportunity to find a "hidden" postcard, either in The Stacks or, after the underground shelves closed, among the bookshelves of the Reading Room. The postcard would be the key to someone else's future, and we would spend part of the night inventing ways to deliver these messages from the future to their recipients. Some went to facebook, others took to calling out names loudly in various areas of the library (after-hours, there was no "quiet" requirement!), or even posting notes around library rooms. By the end of the night, the library was practically littered with notes like the one I put up at 2am, which stated that I still had not received a postcard from the future, and if anyone had a message for me, they should text me, listing my cell phone number. My postcard was finally delivered to me through a combination of facebook and name-calling. I also lucked out with finding Ed R., whose postcard I possessed. Shortly after I retrieved his card from The Stacks, I happened to turn around and see a guy with a partially concealed name-tag, of which I could read the letter, "E". On a whim, I asked if he was Ed, and he was! His interesting and innovative future involved being the first person to fall in love with a robot, marry a robot, divorce a robot, and write a robomance memoir about their relationship.

Cuneiform Tablets
By 5:30am, I had contributed to six stories, ranging from discussing what types of banks the world may need in the future (I suggested a Natural Resource bank) to alternatives to prisons for the future (I discussed focusing on rehabilitation programs), and I even composed an anthem to my hometown, Long Beach, New York, which I titled, "Barrier Island." Each story was basically a reactive essay based on the objects we found. For example, upon finding cuneiform tablets, which contain the oldest form of writing known to man, we were asked to come up with messages/advice for future generations that would be pertinent for as long as cuneiform had existed as a style of writing, nearly 4000 years. Each message also had to be small enough to fit on a cuneiform tablet. It was somewhat fitting that, in the final minutes of the game, I quickly penned (and came up with a tune for) an anthem, as my personal quest for 2021 involved becoming the first person to invent the next wave in music.

Celebrating Finding the Future
Once the last person's story was submitted, the entire group cheered and celebrated. We had succeeded in writing our book! Although, we learned that the idea of having it go to press overnight and be bound by morning was just a bit too ambitious. As of the date of this post, the printed book is still forthcoming. However, when it is ready, it will be available in the general research collection of the library for anyone to see and read!
The End of the Night

Our Book in the Process of Binding

Overall, this was such an amazing experience, and I am glad that I got to share it with such incredible people. We will all have this night in common forever, and we will never forget it.

I took many, many pictures, but here are a sample of the ones I liked the best and/or found best represent our evening:


A Letter from a Slave to His Wife

A Lock of Mary Shelley's Hair
First Edition "Frankenstein"
Charles Dickens' Cat Paw Letter Opener
E. E. Cummings' Typewriter
McGonigal Helps Some Writers/Gamers
View of Empire State Building
from Bill Blass Public Catalog Room
My Postcard from the Future (Which Finally Arrived Around 3am)

One last note -- Please come out and Hug a Library on June 4 at 2pm to show your support for this and other fantastic library programs and rally against proposed budget cuts!!
"Patience and fortitude conquer all things." - Ralph Waldo Emerson 


  1. Wow, sounds like an amazing night!

  2. I can't believe that I totally forgot about your night at the library. What an awesome experience. Who needs a crystal ball to predict when imagination runs rampant in you and your team. You can be compared to Gene Roddenberry who created the futuristic Star Trek. All it takes is a dream.I don't remember you telling me about your scavenger hunt. Let me know when the book comes out. Love Anonymous.