A place to be all your life, and beyond

Columnist Mike Selby on spectral visitors to the world's libraries.

Mike Selby

In the fall of 1974, the Bernardsville Public Library in New Jersey issued a library card to Phyllis Parker.  This was nothing unusual, as the library had been issuing cards to users since 1840. That was the first year the library opened, operating out of a historic building built during the Revolutionary War.

What was unusual about issuing a library card to Phyllis Parker is that she really didn’t need one. Ms. Parker never leaves the library; not even when it is closed.

She is a ghost, having died in 1777.

At that time the library was a tavern, owned by Captain John Parker, who ran it with his 17-year-old daughter Phyllis. When her boyfriend turned out to be a British spy, he was promptly hung, causing Phyllis to become insane and die soon after.  According to town folklore, the “frightening wailing of a woman” could be heard throughout the building for the next hundred years.

Oddly, it wasn’t until 1974 when Phyllis appeared again, as numerous employees noticed the ghostly apparition of a woman appearing in one of the reading rooms. The library decided to issue her a card, stating “she was not put on our computer with the rest of us mortals, but her card is always available should she choose to use it.”

The Bernardsville Library is not alone in their apparent haunting. Libraries throughout history and around the world have reported unwanted visitors.

In the Northern Cape province of South Africa, the Africana Library’s first librarian, who committed suicide, is said to appear now and again amongst the book stacks. A nun wearing blue haunts the Morelia Public Library in Mexico, while the ghost of a young girl haunts the  village library  in the Kukoboi, Yaroslavl, region of Russia.

The State Library in Melbourne, Australia, is a bit greedy. Not only have numerous ghosts been reported, but glowing balls of light also move throughout the building’s corridors.

Closer to home, both the McGill University Library and the University of British Columbia are haunted by ghostly images of a man and woman respectively.  And the École St.-Alphonse in Timmins, Ontario, has a dark shadow that apparently jumps shelf to shelf.

The Saline County Library in Arkansas has all types of ghost-like phenomenon: phantom footsteps, paperback carousels rotating by themselves, books falling from the shelves, a self-operating photocopier, and a slamming book-return door. Once, late at night, Director Julie Hart heard the distinctive sound of a manual typewriter — but the library had long ago discarded theirs.

While fascinating, are any of these reported hauntings true?  Are these libraries really haunted by troubled spirits?  At first glance, one can easily come up with dozens of more plausible explanations for these sightings (older buildings are drafty and tend to creak; people’s subjective feelings; the history of buildings and people given more weight than reported experience…).

But where is the fun in that? One thing about ghostly sightings is it is impossible to prove the person didn’t see something. Besides, these are libraries! Who wouldn’t want to be there?

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library