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Specters in the stacks: haunted libraries in the United States

Some people love libraries so much, they never leave. Though no living human being knows exactly what happens—or doesn’t happen—after death, certain library patrons have reported unnatural, paranormal events occurring within the walls of these four supposedly haunted libraries. Could they be ghosts attempting to check out a new Sci-Fi novel or mischievously disrupting the organized stacks? Or are these sightings and sounds merely natural coincidences? We spoke to these four haunted libraries about their stories, and here’s what they had to say:

Saline County Library, Benton, Arkansas

Ashley Jones, Adult Programmer at the Saline County Library, is no stranger to spookiness in the library. The library, which had an old branch that was closed in 2002, was (and is) home to many a bewildering event. One story from the old branch concerns a painting of two women in rocking chairs on the library’s wall. On 29 January 1988, there was a fire in that building that closed the library until the middle of April of the same year. Everything but the painting and the area immediately around it burned. As one of Ashley’s coworkers puts it, the old branch was “filled with demons.” Many staff members remember hearing voices when they were alone; the old director heard a typewriter tapping when she was alone.

Profound human interaction, the exchange of the ideas, the solving of problems and, at times, the breaking of bad news all took place here – reasons for residual energy, both good and bad.

In a recent ghost hunt held at the current library branch, Ashley reveals, “I was here for the hunt and it was actually kind of creepy. We heard keys jingling, heavy boot steps, and a man talking. It was so real that I thought our maintenance man had come here trying to scare us and I was ready to fight.”

Some of Ashley’s experiences include seeing a woman with big, black bushy hair standing in the children’s section when she’s the first one in the building in the morning, and seeing the lower half of someone in a black skirt walking through the large print fiction area. There was no one else in that area. She will also hear people stomping up and down the stairs early in the morning later at night. The sound of chairs moving across the floor in the story time room, as well as books pages rustling, also accompany a day at work in the library. Books fall off the shelves occasionally. Ashley notes one comical story, saying, “Once I thought one of my coworkers spoke to me, I answered her, then asked her another question to have my office mate point out that no one was there but the two of us. Oddly enough, the spirit was talking about doughnuts.”

Willard Library, Evansville, Indiana

At 131 years old, Willard Library is the oldest public library building in the State of Indiana and until opening a new addition in 2015, had occupied the same 15,000 square foot building and retained much of its attendant Victorian trappings (original woodwork, tile work, high ceilings, and opulence). Greg Hager, Director of the Willard Library, notes that “Willard Library just looks like the kind of place built for housing a ghost.”

"Bernardsville Library 2" photo by Pat Kennedy-Grant. Used with permission.
“Bernardsville Library 2” photo by Pat Kennedy-Grant. Used with permission.

The first reported encounter with the ghost who would become to be known as the Grey Lady occurred in early February 1937. It was the practice of the library’s custodian to come into the library at about 3am during the winter to stoke the coal-fired furnace and begin to get the building heated before it was time to open. He entered the basement and approached the furnace carrying his flashlight when he encountered a woman in a dress with a type of gauzy material over her face standing in front of the furnace. When he realized that the beam of his flashlight passed through her and illuminated the furnace behind her, he fled the basement.

This same custodian would go on to have frequent encounters with this unsettling apparition; in the words of the day, after the first sighting, he “took to drink.” Finally, he quit his job at Willard Library stating as his reason for leaving, always seeing that ghost and having nobody believe him. He is the only staff member to ever leave the employ of the library because of the ghost.

The most recent Grey Lady sighting involved two employees in the Children’s Department who, via a security camera in 2014, witnessed a woman in a Victorian dress standing at the basement door with her back to the camera as if she was looking out the window. The woman turned to face the camera and then disappeared slowly, in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, from the head down, until she was gone. Both employees independently corroborated this story and stated that seeing her made them feel uneasy and unsettled. Other employees who have seen the famous ghost, state that she is accompanied by the strong smell of very cheap smelling perfume and they feel immense cold. Sightings typically last in the range of 10 seconds.

In 1995, Willard Library sponsored the first Grey Lady Ghost Tour, thinking it would be a fun, low key library program. That evening Greg stood in his office looking out the window at the 800 people lined-up outside. The one-hour program turned into a 5 hour event and spurred the library’s current offering of Ghost Tours that span weeks and attract thousands of people. The program remains the library’s most popular program event for adults.

Greg notes, however, that “while we are a haunted place, we are first and foremost a public library that serves the Evansville, Indiana area.” The library doesn’t conduct staff-led Ghost Tours year round and limits overnight paranormal investigations to one night per year. Though the Grey Lady is a sought-after apparition, the library staff is first and foremost concerned with serving the library patrons, which we and the Grey Lady can agree is a very important purpose.

"Bernardsville Library 3" photo by Pat Kennedy-Grant. Used with permission.
“Bernardsville Library 3” photo by Pat Kennedy-Grant. Used with permission.

Bernardsville Library, Bernardsville, New Jersey:

It is believed a grieving ghost haunts the Bernardsville Library, unwilling to let go of her long lost love. Though the story has yet to be verified, it is believed that the ghosts of Phyllis Parker and Dr. Byram are responsible for the mysterious occurrences happening between the stacks.

In 1777, Dr. Byram, a traveling doctor, stopped at the Vealtown Tavern in Bernardsville to rest after a long journey, and quickly became acquainted with the tavern owner’s daughter, Phyllis Parker. The doctor remained at the tavern for an extended amount of time, and during his stay he courted the daughter, who fell madly in love with him.

One night, a group of soldiers in General George Washington’s army entered the tavern, charting out their next venture, when Dr. Byram quickly hurried to his room, then later left the tavern all together. The next day, the soldiers, realizing Dr. Byram was actually a spy for the British army, hunted and quickly captured him, bringing him before their commanding officer. Byram was exposed for who he really was: Mr. Aaron Wilde, a spy for the British army. Within one day, he was tried, convicted, and hanged.

The men returned his body in a coffin to the tavern owner, and gave the owner the full account of the story. Knowing this reality would crush his daughter, he placed the coffin in a back room to bury the next day, and told her nothing. Later that evening, Phyllis crept downstairs to the back room and pried the lid of the coffin off to behold her paramour lying lifeless in the box. She wailed with absolute despair, and never fully recovered from the heartbreak caused by his death, dying herself shortly thereafter.

“Throughout the years there have been sightings and feelings of other worldly beings in the Old Bernardsville Library,” says an employee of the library, “Maybe Phyllis, maybe not.”

In January 1977, the library took advantage of the interest in the ghost story and presented the Ghost Watch Ball on the 200th anniversary of the story. No sightings were reported, but the celebration was well enjoyed.

"Sacramento Public Library," photo by Tracie Popma. Used with permission.
“Sacramento Public Library,” photo by Tracie Popma, showing books that randomly “fall off shelves.” Used with permission.

Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento, California:

“Conjecturing as to why both spots are [haunted] isn’t hard,” explains James C. Scott, Information Services Librarian at the Sacramento Public Library. “The Special Collections rest within what would have been the reference room of the Main Library, built in 1917, and this spot was the information hub for one of the West Coast’s most vibrant cities.”

Though Scott himself questions the library’s supernatural state, as he has yet to experience any paranormal activity in the library since his employment there in 2000, a large amount of queries from patrons and other employees suggests something spooky is happening here.

“Over the years,” he goes on, “archival staff, particularly at night, have heard inexplicable banging and clanging coming from the room’s climate controlled vault, books – many several hundred years old – have randomly fallen off of shelves, and the glass doors enclosing several of the room’s stacks have been found opened in the morning after being closed the evening before.”

Still, it makes sense that lingering spirits would choose a library as their place of eternal residence. Scott commented, “Profound human interaction, the exchange of the ideas, the solving of problems and, at times, the breaking of bad news all took place here – reasons for residual energy, both good and bad.” The library has been and still remains a place of shared knowledge, ideas, and experiences, and would understandably continue to be a special place for people to congregate, those both living and dead.

At the Sacramento library, the Special Collections section hosts an annual haunted house (Haunted Stacks), whereby staff dress up as personalities from Sacramento’s past and speak about their untimely demise somewhere within the context of the city and counties’ rich history. Around 70 people attend each year.

Featured Image Credit: “Willard Library at Night” by Greg Hager. Photo courtesy of Willard Library. Used with permission. 

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