On November 9th, 2012, the rural Australian town of Tullamore, New South Wales experienced a library event like no other.

During a storytelling visit by British writer and educator Dr. Matt Finch, students across the age range from 8 to 18 visited Tullamore’s public library for what they thought would be a writing workshop.

Arriving to find the library vandalised, the students suspected a gimmick. ‘Did you fake-vandalise the library?’ they asked. ‘Is this going to be some kind of murder mystery game or something?’

Before they could be answered, a low moan rose from the street outside. Children ran to the library doors.

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Approaching the building from all angles was a zombie horde.

There was no gimmick. The students now faced a desperate battle for survival. With only the library’s books at their disposal and two reporters from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation looking on…would they survive?

Today on the Library as Incubator Project, it’s with great pleasure that we welcome Dr. Matt Finch, the organizer of the Zombies in the Library project at the Tullamore Public Library in Australia. In today’s post you’ll find a summary of the event, a Q & A with Matt on some of the practical aspects of hosting this type of event at a public library, and a downloadable PDF report of the event for you to use at your own library.

Event Summary

  • On 9th November, Dr. Matt Finch ran a day of storytelling activities for students of Tullamore Central School in rural New South Wales.
  • 32 children across the age range from 8 to 18 years were barricaded in the town library while local volunteers dressed as zombies besieged the building.
  • Students had to research survival techniques and plan an escape from the zombie uprising. The local fire service provided support, delivering food crates and guiding the children to a ‘safe zone’ within the school at the end of the day.
  • Students dressed up as zombies to escape, walking through the horde of ‘zombies’ in disguise.
  • The day’s activities were followed up with a week of in-depth writing sessions at Tullamore Central School.
  • There was extensive media coverage online and via ABC Central West Radio.

Download the full event report. 

I’ve worked on a couple of zombie-themed events for young adults in the past (a Zombie Apocalypse activity day, and a fabulous Zombie Prom) so I was very curious about the practical steps involved and the considerations that this type of event required – hence the following Q&A with Matt. ~ Laura

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This program required a lot of communication and coordination with not only library and school staff, but with emergency services, volunteers, etc. Any comments or suggestions for organizing an event of this scale working with local community partners?

With so much pressure on community organisations and their budgets, events like the zombie uprising offer a great opportunity for different services to come together and achieve their individual goals.

In Tullamore, the fire service got to engage the community with an awareness of the need to be prepared for natural disasters; the library got to raise its profile in the community and demonstrate its relevance as a creative and alternative space of learning; and the school’s students followed up with a week of rich learning activities based on the dramatic zombie experience.

The trick for libraries is to show each partner how your event will help them address their own goals. The youth publishing charity Express Media in Melbourne does similar work enlisting other community organisations to reach specific communities and encourage young writers.

In Tullamore we were lucky to have a great core group of organisers, including staff from the county library service and the local school. We also had a tremendous amount of community goodwill earned through previous literacy activities, such as blogging and book trailer workshops.

Were there concerns expressed in the community about the subject matter? If so, how were those addressed?

We wanted the zombie event to be a surprise, so the principal of Tullamore school discreetly sounded out local parents about the ‘living dead’ theme. The community embraced what was at heart a playful, if thrilling, event.

When I ran a werewolf themed roleplaying activity for teens during school holidays in the nearby town of Parkes, we discussed the subject matter with parents, one of whom chose to withdraw her child from the event.

However, the truth is that many children and teens enjoy thrilling and hair-raising subject matter – from Tommy Donbavand’s Scream Street books for younger children to Charlie Higson’s young adult zombie series, The Enemy. We need to offer teens, especially, literacy activities which are relevant to the popular culture they choose to consume in their free time!

Tullamore is a small and isolated rural community – this allowed our zombies to run a little wild on the streets, safe in the knowledge that there was little traffic and the town’s adults were on side with our event. When similar activities have run in urban areas, such as the spin-off zombie event in Christchurch, New Zealand, activities were appropriately constrained to safe spaces within the libraries.

Can you talk a bit about the volunteer recruitment, training, rehearsal process, etc.? How did the volunteers feel about the program after the fact?

Our zombie volunteers included parents and relatives of the students, librarians drawn from public and high school libraries, and even a local politician keen to support a unique community event.

The make-up work was superlative – the direction had been ‘think Hollywood, not Hallowe’en dress-up’ – and the zombies were encouraged to menace the students, with the proviso that they never made physical contact. A librarian from the team was assigned the role of ‘zombie wrangler’ and managed the volunteers during the day-long siege.

After the event, zombie volunteers reported a sense of pride in contributing so directly and dramatically to a very special day of learning for their community! ‘We felt useful in a creative way – this was more than just baking cakes, or helping out at the school sports day!’, one volunteer told staff.

The event caught the attention of the whole town and the region beyond. Volunteers shared their stories with friends and relatives – reminding Tullamore of the fact that their public library is a hub of learning, innovation, and adventure.

This kind of word-of-mouth support is invaluable – there’s a lot of media discussion these days about how the modern library is changing to meet 21st century needs, but the message will reach even more people if your library’s praises are being sung around the dinner tables and barstools of the town!

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What has the response been from the students, if any? Are there other programs/activities happening in Tullamore now that capitalize on the zombie event?

Students were excited by the unusual, dramatic activity and were given the opportunity to follow up with creative writing responses at school. In Personal Development lessons, the event raised serious questions about community resilience and disaster preparedness, while the school’s careers teacher used the event as a springboard to discuss the skills students need for the workforce.

Part of the fun of a ‘zombie attack’ workshop is the element of surprise for the unsuspecting students…it’s hard, therefore, to talk about our plans for 2013 – but this small, self-contained community of typically audacious and lively rural Australians will certainly play a part in future library workshops. In addition, New Zealand’s Christchurch Libraries trialled a similar event in their urban library at Upper Riccarton.

What are your first three steps for librarians, teachers, and others who are interested in planning this type of library activity in their community?

  1. Start with a spark of inspiration. Steal a great idea from pop culture – comics, television, music – as the basis for an engaging and creative activity. We’re looking to create ‘water cooler moments’ for kids and teens – compelling experiences that will keep them talking about the library for weeks to come.
  2. Enlist other community services to broaden your event’s reach. We recruited community volunteers, school staff, firefighters, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to maximise the impact of our zombie workshop. Bringing together organisations and local people in a way that allows every partner to address their objectives is a great way to spread costs and strengthen the ties that bind your community.
  3. Dare to be different! In a profession sometimes misrepresented as staid and conservative, it’s important to remember that public librarians are firebrands – that public libraries are innately subversive institutions, born of the radical notion that every single member of society deserves free, high-quality access to knowledge and culture.I often end librarian training workshops with the challenge: “What’s the naughtiest thing you can do to promote literacy today?”‘Naughty’ doesn’t mean dangerous, inappropriate, or damaging – being “naughty” in the name of literacy might involve kids smashing up fruit inside your library; or playing real-life versions of video games among the shelvesit might involve zombies besieging kids and teens within your building.

Literacy should be a privilege of every human being on this planet. If we have to resort to drastic measures like a zombie siege to make it happen…so be it!

A very special thank you to Dr. Matt Finch for providing the material for this feature. Read more about Matt and his work on his website

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