Libraries are haunted houses. As our patrons move through scenes and illusions that took years of labor to build and maintain, we workers are hidden, erasing ourselves in the hopes of providing a seamless user experience, in the hopes that these patrons will help defend Libraries against claims of death or obsolescence. However, ‘death of libraries’ arguments that equate death with irrelevance are fundamentally mistaken. If we imagine that a collective fear has come true and libraries are dead, it stands to reason that library workers are ghosts. Ghosts have considerable power and ubiquity in the popular imagination, making death a site of creative possibility. Using the scholarly lens of haunting, I argue that we can experience time creatively, better positioning ourselves to resist the demands of neoliberalism by imagining and enacting positive futurities.
Thinkpieces on the death of libraries are abundant and have been for quite some time. In 2005, the MIT Technology Review identified Google Books’ mass digitization effort as the driving force that “could reduce today’s libraries to musty archives.” Despite some sensational language, the article is just saying that digitization will change the scope of library collections and services. A controversial Forbes article offered a less benign take, suggesting that Amazon should replace public libraries. The piece was taken down shortly after its publication in summer 2018, in part because the author was writing outside the scope of their expertise.
While the authors of death of libraries articles are usually not affiliated with libraries, library workers are quick to debunk and challenge death of libraries content. As a profession constantly asked to justify the existence of our institutions and quantify the value of our labor, defensive impulses are a normal response. In this article, however, I ask library workers to engage with a rather different stance: that being dead might not actually be a bad thing after all.
Mortician and educator, Caitlin Doughty, explains the sentiment well:
Do not be afraid to delight in death. Of course I do not mean you are happy when someone dies, or happy to see someone in pain or mourning. But the vast majority of your life isn’t spent in mourning. It’s spent living. And while you’re living, it will not hurt you to have a fun, positive relationship with Death. Death is fascinating. Chaotic and ordered at the same time. There are strange rituals and art to be explored. The never-ending cultural entertainment of what death does to people, to relationships, to society. I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him (2011).
In her advocacy for the death positive movement, Doughty helps expose and unpack the extent to which fear — specifically the fear of death — informs the choices we make, including the way we care for (or delegate caring for) our dead. Her advice to break a general sense of fear into specific concerns that can be addressed is a good approach for tackling any “nebula of unknown fear” (2017). What are we really afraid of when we talk about the alleged death of libraries?
Claiming that libraries are dying as a matter of course overlooks the choices and structures that led to those circumstances in the first place. Library workers must assert not only the value of our labor, but the very existence of it. I suggest that part of the underlying concern is not being seen, or being seen only to be replaced or forgotten.1 However, ‘death of libraries’ arguments that equate death with irrelevance are fundamentally mistaken.
Death is relevant as ever in 2019, occupying a prominent place in the popular imagination. The past decade has seen the proliferation of surrealist and nihilist memes that humorously embrace mortality and more recently, a resurgence of affection for cryptozoology and the occult. Faced with a world that at best doesn’t make sense and at worst is violently oppressive, the desire to seek connection beyond ourselves and our circumstances is understandable. There is comfort to be found in aligning with creatures who thrive despite being misunderstood, dismissed as outsiders, or having their existence constantly called into question, and this is especially true for people who hold marginalized identities. For those who move through the world as outsiders, or who struggle to feel hope in a crushing capitalist ecosystem, it can be meaningful and positive to envision a world beyond the present, to think of future lives or afterlives.
What could it look like to approach death and haunting from a place of openness and creativity; to demystify death by exploring the mystical? What if instead of nothingness, we imagine an afterlife where anything is possible? Let’s embrace this moment and see where supernatural connections might take us.
If we imagine that a collective fear has come true and libraries are dead, it stands to reason that library workers are ghosts. Since ghosts have considerable power and ubiquity, this frees us to rethink our position in and beyond the neoliberal library and linear time. Ghosts demand attention when there is “something-to-be-done;” which means “we will have to learn to talk to and listen to ghosts, rather than banish them, as the precondition for establishing our scientific and humanistic knowledge” (Gordon 2008, 22). What insights might emerge from “ongoing conversation with ghosts, real or imagined, dead or very much alive,” whether we are haunted, haunting, or both? (Ballif 2013, 139).
The landscape of the academic library is shaped by and reproduces the conditions that persist in the academy and in society more broadly. Thinking about the ways in which capitalism necessitates that bodies and labor be rendered invisible reveals additional layers of haunting, of which we are simultaneously subjects and objects. As Avery Gordon reminds us, “It is essential to see the things and the people who are primarily unseen and banished to the periphery of our social graciousness. At a minimum, it is essential because they see you and address you” (Gordon 2008, 196). Gordon’s provocative use of the second person assuages fears of not being seen while demanding accountability from readers. The ghost sees you, and it addresses you. You are here, so how will you remedy the “something-to-be-done?”
In libraries, there is much to be done. Library and Information Science (LIS) scholarship has been invested in identifying and challenging stereotypes of living librarians in popular culture, but an exploration of death and libraries would be remiss not to include library ghosts. Perhaps our concerns with the death of libraries are exacerbated by the rather limiting extant representations of library ghosts and haunted libraries in popular culture and professional literature. Even trade publications like American Libraries and School Library Journal have profiled real libraries with haunted reputations. While there are certainly exceptions, many library ghosts seem to be women.
The Willard Library, a public library in Evansville, Indiana, has a reputation as one of the more famous haunted libraries in the United States. Their hallmark specter is “the Grey Lady,” an apparition of a woman first spotted in 1937 and last seen in 2010. The Willard has a website of live camera feeds dedicated to recording her presence, which links out to local ghost-hunting resources. Enthusiastic community members engage in ghost tours of the library each Halloween, hoping to encounter the Grey Lady. While the Grey Lady’s identity is not entirely agreed upon, she manifests in specific, recognizable ways: “moving books, adjusting lights, and turning faucets on and off” in order to “let the world know she is here.” (“Willard Library Ghost Cams,” n.d.) Her presence seems to have reignited interest in local history, and in the library as a space full of possibilities and stories.
Not all library ghosts are so positive, however. The apparition in the 1984 film Ghostbusters also exemplifies the trope of the library ghost, but in a more fearsome manner (Reitman, 1984). Before morphing into a ghoulish entity who attacks the Ghostbusters, she appears as an elderly woman in turn-of-the-century dress and is reading a book, reflecting a cultural stereotype of library workers that is stuck in the age of Dewey. Like the Lady in Grey, this ghost can levitate and move books: the disturbance of physical collections signals that a spirit is at work. Images of female ghosts who haunt the stacks in order to safeguard or speak through their collections visually reinforce the connection between library workers, collections, and gendered (here, feminized) labor.
In such examples, books are a necessary component of the aesthetic of librarianship, juxtaposing the material (books and physical space) with the immaterial (ghosts). Juxtaposition is central to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, places he describes as “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (1984, 6). Foucault identifies cemeteries, libraries, and museums among his examples of heterotopias, as they are linked by unique relationships to time and memory. Cemeteries juxtapose life and death, loss (of life) and creation (of monuments), history and modernity as their grounds become increasingly populated. Similarly, libraries and museums embody “a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place,” organizing and enclosing representations of memory and knowledge (Foucault 1984, 7).
Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride is a particularly illustrative heterotopia, accumulating time and juxtaposing seemingly opposing concepts. Visitors to the attraction explore the home of “999 happy haunts” from varied time periods and regions of the world. The dead are lively as they dance, sing, and joke. One of the first destinations within the Haunted Mansion ride is the library.2 There (as in the stacks at the Willard Library or in Ghostbusters), books spontaneously fly from the shelves (Surrell et al. 2015, 88). In a dissertation on modern Gothic narratives (of which Disney’s Haunted Mansion is one), Katherine Bailey notes that “books are portals into other worlds themselves,” further describing the library’s significance in the context of the ride’s narration where a mention of ghost writers “serves as an obvious reference to unseen hands at work” (2012, 92).
While the “unseen hands” in the Haunted Mansion’s library are ostensibly those of a ghost, there is another layer of unseen hands: the hands of Disney’s Imagineers, the workers who crafted the Mansion’s story, infrastructure, and illusions. Reference to their existence are hidden in ‘Easter eggs’ throughout the attraction: an inscription on a tombstone, a character’s likeness, etc. Visitors’ attention is directed toward the Mansion as an experience or singular magical entity rather than the creative work of many laborers. This directly parallels libraries, where doing one’s job successfully often requires the deliberate erasure of one’s existence.
In popular culture, the haunted library is a space with books: it is an aesthetic constructed to represent a fantasy. As such, it is noteworthy that death of libraries discourse centers specifically on libraries as spaces and institutions. Libraries become the haunted mansion, the singular magical entity inhabited by ghosts (library workers) who may or may not be visible. This privileging of the institution overlooks the reality of library workers, actual people whose material and emotional needs are denied or compromised in the service of neoliberal capitalism (Cronk, 2019).
Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch presents a feminist historical analysis of how women–and in particular their bodies–have been subjugated and subject to violence within capitalist relations in Europe. Her analysis of witch hunts and efforts to “make visible hidden structures of domination and exploitation” are especially relevant to conversations about hidden, haunted labor within the feminized profession of libraries (2009, 13). Gordon’s take on haunting in Argentina also refers to “state-sponsored systems of disappearance” where ghosts help to reveal the structures and interests behind oppressive systems (2008, 67-70). There is a difference, however, between bringing to light the infrastructure of institutions and valuing the institution more than the workers who sustain it.
Persistent references to libraries instead of library workers are a manifestation of vocational awe, which Fobazi Ettarh describes as the notion that libraries are inherently good and therefore exempt from critique (2018). Vocational awe is a foil to death of libraries discourse, vehemently asserting the permanence of libraries. Rather than assuming inevitable death or irrelevance, this perspective insists that libraries will continue to exist simply because they are good and important and therefore must exist. Such a mindset suggests that it is acceptable for administrators to make decisions that harm workers as long as those decisions will aid the presumed greater good of libraries and keep the institution ‘alive.’ Lauren Berlant might call this a relation of cruel optimism, “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” even when the attachment has damaging consequences” (2011, 24).
The concept of haunted futurity can help us to better understand the troubling relationship between libraries and labor under neoliberalism. For Debra Ferreday and Adi Kuntsman, “The future may be both haunted and haunting: whether through the ways in which the past casts a shadow over (im)possible futures; or through horrors that are imagined as ‘inevitable’; or through our hopes and dreams for difference, for change” (2011, 6). Haunted futurity invites us to think of haunting as potential; a collective experience and call to action in response to ghosts.
Listening to ghosts requires effort, just as haunting requires effort. As Kevin Seeber writes, “It’s not the heavens smiling on you when you browse the stacks and find a relevant item, it’s the labor of a bibliographer, a cataloger, and a shelver. This stuff ends up where it does because people are doing the work of putting it there” (2018). By that logic, books fly from the shelves of the haunted library because ghosts are doing the work of moving them. When these ghostly occurrences happen, living people have been conditioned to reshelve the books as quickly as possible: there is an organization scheme to follow, a workflow that has been interrupted, and an image of the library that must be restored. Work under neoliberal capitalism has specific time-bound demands and prioritizes results (especially the accumulation of capital) above all else.
By disrupting space and time, ghosts simultaneously reveal their presence and the presence of structures that are supposed to remain hidden. In an interview for Jacobin, Marxist scholar and anthropologist David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a “political project” taken up by “the corporate capitalist class” lashing out against labor (2016). One way in which this manifests is the obfuscation of labor, as seen in the narratives of serendipity Seeber critiques so well. The experience of finding the perfect book in the stacks becomes decidedly less magical when one considers the labor (and the material circumstances of laborers) behind the encounter. These slippages into visibility, however, can be an opportunity to learn. What might happen if we paused to ask the ghost what harm brought it to this place rather than immediately assessing whether the library’s materials were harmed during flight? Avery Gordon offers one suggestion: “If you let it, the ghost can lead you toward what has been missing, which is sometimes everything” (2008, 58).
In this case, part of what has been missing is concern for humanity. Considering human beings in particular rather than libraries generally will reveal structures and truths that may be hard to reckon with, but this work is necessary. Neoliberalism emerged as a movement because of collective fear felt by the ruling class, and requires a single understanding and experience of time. Privileging a white, Western, cis-hetero-patriarchal viewpoint further marginalizes anyone who moves through the world differently. Haunting offers meaningful opportunity to critique this dehumanizing rigidity by interrogating and experimenting with structures of time: “haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future” (Gordon 2008, xvi). The idea that haunting changes how we experience and understand time is critical when brought into conversation with scholars whose creative theoretical interventions also challenge dominant constructs of time and labor.
In academia (and by extension academic libraries), time is weaponized to extract as much labor as possible. Adjunct, contract, and term-limited positions based on temporary funding force workers to perform at unsustainable levels while minimizing the financial expenditure required of the institution. Even in an alleged best case scenario where one obtains a tenure-track position, the imposing tenure clock and the prospect of losing permanent, stable employment necessitate stress that is comparable to that of contingent work.
As a result, commodification of time and valorization of overwork are particularly acute problems. Given a future that is uncertain at best and threatening at worst, workers are simply trying to get by. Riyad Shahjahan compellingly argues that “time is a key coercive force in the neoliberal academy,” because colonial logics privilege frequent intellectual output over embodied knowledge which can look different or take more time (2015, 491). “Amid deadlines and reviews,” he observes, “these non-productive parts of our bodies are rendered invisible” (2015, 494). Federici also points to the changing role of the body under capitalism, where primitive accumulation “required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force” (2009, 63). Thus, productivity is integral to job performance, workers are only of value if they produce specific, visible outputs in designated time-frames, and bodies are only of value in relation to their ability to maintain productivity.
However, it does not have to be this way. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder also take up the questions of embodiment and productivity, examining through a disability studies lens the ways in which disabled people have historically been positioned as outside the laboring masses due to their “non-productive bodies” (2010, 186). They posit that this distinction transforms as the landscape of labor shifts toward digital and immaterial outputs from work in virtual or remote contexts, establishing the disabled body as a site of radical possibility. Alison Kafer’s crip time is similarly engaged in radical re-imagining, challenging the ways in which “‘the future’ has been deployed in the service of compulsory able-bodiedness and able-mindedness” (2013, 26-27). That is, one’s ability to exist in the future, or live in a positive version of the future is informed by the precarity of their social position. The work of theorists like Mitchell, Snyder, and Kafer is significant because it insists on a future in which disabled people not only exist, but also thrive despite the pressures of capitalism. Death of libraries rhetoric instills fear because it threatens a future without libraries, which vocational awe would have us believe is no future at all.
Perhaps there is reassurance to be found in the connection between haunting and queer time. Gordon’s claim that haunting “mediates between institution and person, creating the possibility of making a life, of becoming something else, in the present and for the future,” is reminiscent of the way Jack Halberstam theorizes queer time (Gordon 2008, 142). There are many reasons why queer people do not or cannot conform to heteronormative temporal and familial expectations, thus queer time is a way of creating positive futurity where one is not expected, and resisting a sense of inevitability (2005). In essence, queer time is about utilizing time differently to open oneself to new possible experiences whether or not those experiences conform to boundaries of linear time.
While queerness and disability are states of being that necessitate different experiences of time, haunting and slowing down are useful frameworks because they offer ways to think about time that apply to all modes of embodiment. Arguments for slow scholarship contend that “to enable slow motion is to open for a state of intense awareness: an intake of ‘more’– not of ‘the same’ at a slower pace” (Juelskjær and Rogowska-Stangret 2017, 6). Haunting asks for the same kind of embodied response, for increased connection to one’s senses in receiving ghostly messages: “to be haunted is to be in a heightened state of awareness; the hairs on our neck stand up: being affected by haunting, our bodies become alert, sensitive” (Ferreday and Kuntsman 2011, 9). If we rethink what it means for someone to ‘look like they have seen a ghost,’ these physical responses do not have to result in fear; rather we can interpret them as reminders to pause, reflect, observe what we are feeling, and listen to what the ghost has to say. Like slowing down, haunting is a way to experience time irrespective of normative productivity. Becoming attuned to one’s senses and listening to ghosts can be transformative, enabling the creation and sharing of more, unique information.
Google Books is at the intersection of information sharing, transforming labor, massive digital production, and ghostly hidden labor. Moreover, academic libraries have been key players in the digitization and consumption of these books. The workers–primarily women of color–who digitize texts for Google Books occupy space at the intersection of digital work, (im)materiality, and ghostliness. In contrast to the intangible but visible apparition who floats through the stacks, these workers are physical beings who are often invisibilized or only partially corporeal: doing their job correctly requires eliminating evidence of their physical existence. We see traces of this disappearing process when fingers or hands appear in the scanned pages of text, “becoming spectral additions to the Google Books library and permanently altering the viewer’s perception of the content” if they slow down enough to notice and ponder (Soulellis, 2013). Sometimes a hand will obscure text in a book’s table of contents, changing a reader’s roadmap to the text. Sometimes a modern-day hand will become part of the image of a book that is hundreds of years old, forming a juxtaposition of time and knowledge. Sometimes all that is captured is the blur of fingers turning the next page to scan.
In the introduction to her zine Hand Job, Aliza Elkin points out that Google’s first logo was co-founder Larry Page’s hand: “Perhaps there is some irony that Google at its scale today is so invested in hiding the fingers and hands (and, following from that, the evidence of manual labor and human intervention) of its employees (or, more probably, contractors) in one of its best known products” (2018). Works like Andrew Norman Wilson’s ScanOps and Paul Soulellis’ Apparition of a Distance However Near it May Be also capture these slippages into visibility, revealing glimpses of the labor behind a massive system of organizing knowledge (Wilson 2012 and Soulellis 2013).
Found image art of Google Books pages contrast the sanitized or humorous depictions of haunting in pop culture. Each hand or ring or painted fingernail is a reminder of the individuality and humanity of workers usually depicted as a monolith. Each image is a reminder to look beyond the entity presented and ask what structures lie beneath, at what cost to laborers.
Libraries are haunted houses, constructed sites of possibility inhabited by ghosts. As our patrons move through scenes and illusions that took years of labor to build and maintain, we workers are hidden, erasing ourselves in the hopes of providing a seamless user experience, in the hopes that these patrons will help defend libraries when the time comes. But I ask that we think deeply about what it means for libraries to be under attack, and why the attachment to that narrative persists. Institutions may or may not die, but all humans do. Library workers at all levels, but especially those who have institutional power, must care for one another and prioritize community wellbeing. Individual actions will not solve structural problems, but they can improve people’s immediate material conditions: that’s something to start with.
Haunting is a complex and rich lens through which we can explore what it might be like to be fearless, or to harness fear in a way that is creatively powerful. If we think like ghosts, we can experience time creatively and less urgently, better positioning ourselves to resist the demands of neoliberalism; to imagine and enact positive futurities.
When a ghost speaks, those around it are compelled to listen.
So then the question is, what kind of ghosts do we want to be?
The idea for this article began as a talk I gave at the 2018 Gender & Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium. I would like to thank my mentors and co-panelists Leah Richardson and Dolsy Smith for their support and for inspiring me with their own work.
It is an exciting professional accomplishment to publish in In the Library with the Lead Pipe. I am grateful to peer reviewer Samantha Alfrey, internal reviewer Kellee Warren, and publishing editor Annie Pho for their insights and for helping me through the editorial process. I would also like to thank my inimitable friend and colleague Dianne N. Brown for her encouragement, willingness to listen, and her feedback on drafts of this article. Finally, I am beyond thankful to Faith Weis for her unwavering support in this and all things: she’s a true partner with a keen eye and a kind heart.
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- There is also a very real fear of unemployment and financial insecurity looming over what is already a precarious situation for many. My goal in this article is not to oversimplify or ignore that reality; rather I hope to offer space for thinking creatively about our work, how it is complicit in systems of oppression, and what we might do differently. I recognize that being in a position to write this article is a place of relative privilege. [↩]
- Each Disney park has its own version of the attraction. Though the haunted house premise remains the same, storylines, characters, and decor were adapted for Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor, and Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor. All five mansions contain some version of a library. [↩]