At Radford University, librarians have used a variety of methods to help students make connections between the library’s physical and virtual spaces. The proximity beacon game discussed in this article is the latest iteration of this ongoing process. This process began in earnest in 2013, when the library purchased fifteen fifth-generation iPod touch devices and developed our first version of a mobile game, the predecessor to our current proximity beacon activity. As part of our UNIV 100 transition to the university course, professors were invited to bring new students to the library to engage in a competitive mobile scavenger hunt. In this scavenger hunt, first-year students traveled to various library locations and took photos of themselves using resources. They also used the mobile versions of the library’s discovery layer and catalog to search for books and DVDs, and then found those items in the building. Library pencils, cups, candy, and other small prizes were awarded to the team of students in each class who correctly identified the greatest number of library locations and materials in the shortest amount of time. In this way, we began to connect the library’s places with our online presence in students’ minds.

… Creating fun games to
explore the library as place
may help combat library

Creating fun games to explore the library as place may help combat library anxiety. Several studies have linked a lack of comfort and familiarity with the library’s physical areas with negative outcomes, including academic procrastination1 and unwillingness to ask librarians for research help.2 First-year and first-generation college students often experience higher levels of library anxiety,3 so we sought to target first-semester freshmen with the mobile game. These students also had high familiarity with iPods and voiced some pleasant surprise that the library was incorporating “their” technology, which combatted their preconceptions of the library as outdated.

Although the mobile scavenger hunt was very popular with students and teaching faculty members, it required a great deal of staff time to restore and sync the iPod devices after each use. We also struggled with Wi-Fi coverage in our building, making it difficult for students to post their photos online and leading to some frustration with the iPods. We used the mobile scavenger hunt for two years before sunsetting it in favor of a library skills Jeopardy game for our first-year students. This freed up our iPods for other uses, and librarians set out to determine new ways to engage students with mobile technology and encourage library exploration.

In January of 2016, we began planning for our annual National Library Week activities with the goal of developing fun and engaging experiences for our students. Since National Library Week falls very close to final exam periods at the university, we aim to keep the activities quick and easy-to-understand. Since our iPods hadn’t seen much use in six months, we began brainstorming ways to use the devices, help students make connections between the physical and virtual library, and reduce library anxiety. During these initial brainstorming sessions, the possibility of using proximity beacons for a location-based game was debated, with inspiration from recent articles on beacons in library literature4 and conference highlights.5

Proximity Beacon Technology

Proximity beacons are small devices that emit a unique Bluetooth signal, which can be read by mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Applications can be written for mobile interfaces that read the unique beacon signal, and beacons can then be programmed to deliver a message, open a webpage, display a photo or video, or execute another action based upon the specific beacon identity.6 On their own, beacons can transmit proximity but not direction. In other words, mobile devices can tell you when you’re getting closer or further from a specific beacon location but not whether it is to your left or right.

… Although proximity
beacons have been
primarily used in retail
settings, several libraries
and museums have also
used proximity and location
aware technologies.

Although proximity beacons have been primarily used in retail settings, several libraries and museums have also used proximity and location aware technologies. The Brooklyn Museum uses over one hundred proximity beacons spread throughout their large building to learn about their users’ backgrounds and experiences as they interact with exhibits.7 Virginia Tech8 and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte9 also designed their own customized applications to interact with iBeacons at their main libraries. As students move through the library, the beacons deliver alerts describing materials or services available at each location.

Radford University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL) already owned several proximity beacons from Estimote10 and was seeking collaboration opportunities. After reviewing the capabilities of the library iPod devices, the decision was made to use the Estimote beacons running Apple’s iBeacon protocol.11 Because of the short-term nature of the National Library Week project and a lack of staff time to devote to a customized application, we selected Piper,12 an out-of-the-box mobile app, to read the beacons and deliver messages. One important reason that we used our library’s iPods, instead of directing students to download the free Piper app themselves, is that downloading the app placed a barrier to student participation. From past experience, convincing students to download apps that they were unfamiliar with, like QR code readers, discouraged involvement.

Developing an iBeacon Game

… After consulting with
CITL about the capability of
iBeacons, librarians sought
advice and assistance from
our student advisory board
in developing an iBeacon-
based game.

After consulting with CITL about the capability of iBeacons, librarians sought advice and assistance from our student advisory board in developing an iBeacon-based game. Two advisors volunteered to write questions based on their favorite spaces and services in the library. The advisors were given free rein during their creative process. The only guidance from librarians was that the game should not take too long to play, with the suggestion to limit to five questions. The student advisors surpassed expectations, creating rhyming riddles that would take the game participants to all five floors of the library. One feature was highlighted from each floor of the building to separate Bluetooth signals so participants would only see the iBeacon that corresponded to that floor’s riddle. The riddles were written so that first-time visitors to the library would be able to participate without any prior knowledge of the building layout or services. We wanted to ensure that all of our students had an equal opportunity for success in the game and an equal opportunity to win a prize in our drawing.

The student advisors’ riddles directed patrons to each library location, and once the iPod touch was in Bluetooth range of the iBeacon, a message was pushed out to the iPod. Messages varied according to the library location. Using the riddles written by our advisors, Katelyn Burton handled the necessary coding to the iBeacon application. This was done in the Piper website dashboard. First, she created an action item for each of the riddles. The action image (see fig. 1) was associated with the riddle directing the game participant to our Archives. The action was to send a link to the Archives Digital Collections.

Fields on the login screen

Figure 1. Edit action screen in the Piper app’s administrator interface.

Next, she paired the action with the iBeacon that was to be placed in the Archives. Once the player was near the Archives, the iBeacon successfully pushed the link to the Archives Digital Collections so that the student could explore both the physical and virtual spaces (see fig. 2).

User interface for the Piper app

Figure 2. Beacon overview screen in the Piper app’s administrator interface

After she created actions and paired all five beacons, the beacons were ready to be placed in their locations. Because the iBeacons look rather distinctive, we also warned our shelving assistants and fellow library staff members about their locations so they wouldn’t be inadvertently moved or discarded.

We then created physical material for game participants, including handouts with the riddles written on them and space below each riddle to write an answer related to the message that appeared on Piper when they visited the correct location (See Appendix: Assigned Tasks & Clues). We also provided each participant with a printed library map and created a handout with instructions on how to use Piper during the game (see fig. 3).

Instruction sheet for how to use the Piper app

Figure 3. Handout provided to students detailing how to use the Piper app

With the iPods, paper material, and coding in Piper complete, we were ready to test. Our entire student advisory board and our front desk staff members tested the game and provided valuable feedback about its difficulty and their experiences using the iPods. Overall, feedback was positive. Our student advisors thought the iBeacons were really interesting and asked many questions about the technology. Staff members appreciated that the riddles highlighted wonderful features of our building and services we provide here.

Issues Identified and Solutions Implemented

After testing the game we took note of some issues and implemented solutions where possible. During placement, we learned that the adhesive on the beacons is not particularly strong, so we used removable mounting putty to ensure that the beacons were securely attached to shelving in ways that would not damage the shelf finish or the beacon. Some students expressed frustration that it takes a few seconds for the iPod to pick up the iBeacon Bluetooth signal, so there is a bit of a lag in when the messages are sent out. Also, the signals can be unpredictable. Despite the expectation that putting beacons on different floors would ensure participants only received the message from the iBeacon on their current floor, sometimes we had a stronger signal from a different floor than when we stood directly beside the beacon location. We had left several of the iPods logged in to the library’s Piper account, and those devices had difficulty identifying all five beacon’s signals during the game. We also learned that metal shelving can hinder the Bluetooth signals, so several beacons had to be relocated.

Results and Next Steps

Once the game had been tested and tweaked, we developed printed advertisements for our National Library Week activities and posted them around campus. We sent a campus-wide email detailing the events, posted on social media, and used our campus’s digital information screens to display messages about the activities and prizes. All promotions publicized our incentives for the game: one fifty-dollar gift card and two twenty-five dollar gift cards to our campus bookstore, which were purchased using library funds. We worked to develop protocols with the front desk so that any staff member or student assistant would be able to check out the iPods to participants and ensure that they would receive all game components. Our Reserves Coordinator labeled each of the iPods as a reserve item and organized all game components (iPods, riddle sheets, maps, and completed riddle sheets) to simplify check out to participants. We also asked the front desk to offer each participant a clipboard, something that was recommended by our student advisors.

During the seven-day period of National Library Week, we had a total of ten students play the iBeacon game. Of those, seven students correctly answered all of the riddles and provided an email address to be entered into our prize drawing. Although the turnout was lower than we hoped, we are satisfied that this iBeacon pilot was successful due to the positive feedback from participants. The implementation team brainstormed several ideas to improve student participation in the future, such as offering reserved study spaces for student groups who play the game as an organization. We could also create more eye-catching and playful promotional materials and post photos and short videos of student advisors playing the game to library and campus social media outlets so potential participants can get a sense of how the game works.

We hope to develop more iBeacon-based activities in the future, as we do see possibilities for self-guided tours and other wayfinding assistance. Because our iPod touch devices are several generations old, they are likely to be outdated soon. When this occurs, we will have a choice about whether to ask our patrons to use their own Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices or to purchase more library-owned devices. In the short term, it seems prohibitive to ask users to take time to locate and download an app to their personal device, based both on our past experiences observing student reluctance to do so, and on feedback from our student library advisory board.

… As mobile device
companies develop,
release, and refine new
location aware
technologies, we will have
new opportunities to
leverage these to assist
and educate our patrons.

As we look to the future, several possibilities may increase the usability of this developing technology. While proximity beacons on their own do not transmit location, it is possible to use multiple beacons in concert to triangulate location and even create a virtual map.13 This map could be used to provide guided directions to services or specific library assets such as a book’s shelving location. This technology, while currently available, is still relatively new and requires the ability to code and publish your own mobile app as compared to the out-of-the-box Piper app used in our trial.

Proximity beacons are also gaining wider acceptance from mobile interfaces. The Chrome browser on Android and iOS mobile devices can now recognize Google’s beacon protocol, Eddystone, natively.14 As proximity beacon reading become more integrated in mobile devices, it will reduce the necessity for users to find and download apps on their personal devices in order to interact with them. Apple is testing an alternative location-mapping technology that utilizes Wi-Fi signals instead of beacons, but there is no estimated time for its release.15 As mobile device companies develop, release, and refine new location aware technologies, we will have new opportunities to leverage these to assist and educate our patrons.

Appendix: Assigned Tasks & Clues

Clue 1: I’m in the middle of a cluster, You could find me in your nearest Blockbuster.

Question 1: Write down the name of something that you might like to watch. As Piper shows, you can always use the library catalog to see if we have a specific title.

Clue 2: Extra! Extra! On the 3rd floor, See what the newsies have in store

Question 2: Use the link in Piper to find out about McConnell Library’s news and events on our Facebook page. Scroll down to find a recent post and write a description of something going on in the library:

Clue 3: When school is in your face, You can come down here for a group study space

Question 3: According to the Piper message, where else can you find group study space in the library?

Clue 4: In the basement of the lib, where you can’t escape, I’m a different kind of video tape

Question 4: According to the Piper message, what else can you find on the 1st floor?

Clue 5: On the quiet, highest floor, looking down below, Filled with Radford history, and artifacts for show

Question 5: Write the description of at least one thing you could see at this location.

Katelyn Burton ( is the Reference and Instruction Librarian at Virginia Western Community College. Her current research interests include incorporating critical pedagogy into the library classroom and improving outcomes for online learners.

Jason Burton is the Coordinator of Instructional Technology at Radford University.

Alyssa Archer is an Instruction Librarian at Radford University, where she teaches many one-shot instruction sessions for in-person and online environments. Other duties include Reference Services and Faculty Outreach. Current research interests include using innovative instructional technologies to enhance students’ classroom experiences and finding solid pedagogical principles to incorporate into teaching.

Received: June 8, 2016
Accepted: October 27, 2016
Published: August 10, 2017

© Authors: Burton, et al. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (, which permits use, distribution, modification, and reproduction in any medium, provided your use is for a non-commercial purpose, you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.


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