Geocaching, and its low-tech granny letterboxing, are a kind of hobby treasure hunt, massively multi-user hide-and-seek games played in the great outdoors. Basically, players hide caches or letterboxes in out of the way places, then other players use clues or maps or GPS coordinates to find them. The caches usually contain a logbook, so you can record your find, or a stamp or trinket you can keep to prove you found it. Eccentric Brits have been doing this since the 1800s, but the internet and inexpensive GPS devices turned the hobby into a phenomenon. It’s easy to see why. Going for a hike is fun, but it’s way more fun when you go on a hike and find hidden treasure.

Why can’t we do this with historical research? Historians know how terrific it feels to discover hidden treasures in the archive, but we also know you can pan a lot of silt between each nugget of historical gold. What if we could rig the game for our students, patrons, and history buffs, to let them enjoy the thrill of the chase and the joy of the find?

Call it clio-caching. Leave calling cards in card catalogs, plant trinkets and rewards in archive boxes, bury treasure in the textual layers of the past. Then share your clues: There’s a cache buried in the James Forrestal fonds at the Truman Presidential Library. Find the last letter Isaac Brock wrote before the Battle of Queenston Heights and you’ll find a prize.

Hard core cliocachers could string out long chains of clues, each one leading to another, threading through linked archival sources. Rank them in order of difficulty: Letters by Civil War soldiers. Quilt and textile museums. Sealed files of the Warren Commission, or the Kremlin. Cliocachers could spend their Saturdays tromping through letterbooks and diaries. Families could bring a lunch and picnic in the past.

As any letterboxer can tell you, the value of the find is immaterial. In the hiding and the seeking lies the fun.


  1. I experienced something a little like this in the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg i.Br., Germany. There, they record the user names in the front of the folders or bundles you look at. There’s no guarantee the person saw the document you have in mind, because the folders can be large, but I did find myself noting that certain historians had looked at folders I had. It didn’t happen often, because of my topic, but sometimes, and it was fun.

  2. Mark: Yes! Whenever I’m in an archive I find myself extremely curious about who might have used these sources before me, and who might come to them after I’ve gone. And I often wish I could leave little messages to future researchers: “can you believe this guy?” or “be sure to read the diary entry for such-and-such a date!”

  3. Cute.

    And you’re right about reading archive records themselves — back when Harvard used actual cards in the books, sometimes you found something interesting: enough of that, and you’d effectively reproduce the wiki in post-its.

    The Brock/Queenstown reference, though, means that I’m going to have Rogers’ “McDonnell on the Heights” going through my head all night, until I get the lyrics back.

  4. I could see actually leaving something in the fond at the archives kind of impractical. And annoying for the archivist ^_^

    But if you could set up a website where you have to input the answer to a historical question that you could only know by having gone to a place or having gone through some effort to look it up, and that password took you to some kind of virtual prize or something, that would be pretty neat.

  5. I am reminded of the The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, where in the future, to get your Phd in history, the university would send you back in time to do one small thing…..

  6. One of our reference librarians has come up with an “Amazing Race” game, customizable by discipline, to introduce students to the resources in our library and the tools to track them down. Works really well with all kinds of students, in my experience. Cliocaching sounds consistent with this. Let me know if you want me to put you in touch with the librarian, Rob!

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  8. “plant trinkets and rewards in archive boxes, ”

    And potentially introduce microflora and macroflora, damage the documents, screw up the carefully acid-controlled environment, and annoy the researchers who are actually trying to get some work done.

    As a librarian, we always loathed the people who stuffed tracts everywhere in the library; this idea is even worse, because the “trinkets” are being nestled into fragile historical documents.

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  10. The Constructivist: “One of our reference librarians has come up with an “Amazing Race” game, customizable by discipline, to introduce students to the resources in our library and the tools to track them down.”

    When I was at Penn State in the mid-80s, all freshmen had to complete a “library workbook,” which was like a scavenger hunt that would demonstrate you had at least visited all the major sections of the library, and looked up an array of items. I image it’s been phased out since then, as most of the answers could now be found without leaving your dorm room!

    jonquil reminds me of the time I was grateful to a special collections staffer for a big favor she’d done. “Can I bring you a pizza?” was met with horror. “Flowers?” –also turned down immediately. “Just thank me when you publish” was her preferred solution.

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  12. I hid several “easter eggs” while doing some research in the National Archives as a favor to a member of my graduate committee.

    I took around 700 digital photo’s of several different documents and hid tiny little pictures I’d drawn on scraps of paper on the corners of about 10 documents. They were just little Easter eggs, bunny rabbits, people waving, etc… I mostly did it to see if he would actually use the photo’s, and if I was just wasting my time, but part of me found joy in the thought of him reading through the documents and coming across a little man waving at him in the corner.

    For the record, I don’t think he ever found them.

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