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The Ghost in the Library

The Ghost in the Library

The Ghost in the Library
by Grant Burns

Every good library needs a ghost. We have ours. Read on....

Saturday closing time rolls around on a pleasant, early-spring afternoon. The Thompson Library has been sparsely populated all day; not even the specter of term papers soon due can keep most students from spending the day outside in the sun.

The librarian on duty makes his customary tour of the building after locking the entrance. He checks each floor, looking down the rows between the stacks, into the study rooms, and along the empty study carrels for the stray visitor who may have nodded off and missed the closing announcement.

He takes the stairs to the first floor, the last stage of his circuit, and checks the stacks first. Finding them empty, he emerges onto the floor of the atrium, the building's most striking architectural feature. Caught up in daily work, he seldom visits this spot; rather than a part of the library's general business area, the atrium is a place for escape, for meditation, for reflection on space, time, and the eight-page paper due Thursday afternoon.

The atrium, filled with late-afternoon sunlight, is otherwise empty. The librarian takes a moment to enjoy the scene: He stands near the graceful curving glass wall at the north end and surveys the space, savoring the effects of the light on the stainless steel, the glass, and the wood paneling.

The peaceful quiet reassures him that in a violent world, it is still possible to create a sanctuary where the quotidian hurly-burly does not drown one's thoughts. The librarian puts his hands in his pockets and stands at ease. He hears nothing but his own breathing, the distant hum of the ventilation system--and the busy rustling of papers.

The Thompson Library ghost has not completed his day's inquiries. Or her inquiries. Since no one here has met this spirit in the flesh, or in the ectoplasm, we are unsure to which sex it subscribes. We know only that our ghost is a busy one, with a long day's journey through his researches fading into night.

When the day's patrons have left their studies to return to the warmth of their friends and families, the Thompson Library ghost pursues his quest with unrelenting devotion, flipping through page after page in a feverish search for some unknown, and perhaps unknowable, truth.

The first time I heard him as I made the Saturday closing round several years ago, I was convinced that a preoccupied patron in an obscure spot was leafing frantically through a book or journal. My careful investigation led only to my doubting my own ears: I found no one, but I continued to hear turning pages.

Imagine my relief when other library staffers reported the same observation. Most recently reference librarian Paul Streby, a man not given to fanciful conclusions, discussed our invisible friend with me in a state of some concern. "Do you think he'll ever find what he's looking for?" he said.

Who is our ethereal patron? Speculation is only too easy. The page-rustler could be the restless shade of a long-gone scholar whose lifeline frayed out before he completed the one great work that would have rendered his name immortal.

Could this phantom's origins go back even further, to the days when the old Flint Public Library, built with a Carnegie grant furnished in 1905, stood just down the street from the place the Thompson Library now occupies? Picture if you will some turn-of-the-century Flint bookman bent on a mission of the most arcane sort, lost in time and space--but at home in the Thompson Library, convinced that the next page, or the next, will yield the truth so long sought.

We wish him well. We invite him to stop by the reference desk to ask for help, even if his origins and motives baffle us (a situation we experience with some of our corporeal clients). In any case, we know one thing: In the library, after hours, we are never alone. The rustling of pages proves it.

Grant Burns was Assistant Director of the Thompson Library until his death in 2006. We still feel his presence.