c/o Kat Struhar, News Editor

c/o Kat Struhar, News Editor

Staff dressed in gothic, ghoulish costumes led patrons through the stacks of Russell Library every Friday evening throughout the month of October, in an event entitled Secrets of Russell Library. This is the first year this event has been hosted, and it operated with four tours per night, running in intervals of 30 minutes from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Each tour visited several stops throughout the four components that make up Russell Library’s “Frankenbuilding,” highlighting the history of the library and the mysteries that surround it.

Russell Library’s Head of Borrowing and Discovery Amy Slowik, who coordinated the project, explained that the idea to do haunted tours had been brought up in previous years, but there was never enough time to organize it. However, after Slowik’s monthly mystery book discussion group read “The Lions of Fifth Avenue” by Fiona Davis—a book that revolves around the inner workings of libraries—in July 2022, they wanted to know more about the work behind the scenes at Russell Library. Their curiosity sparked the idea behind Secrets of Russell Library.

“In the discussion [about ‘The Lions of Fifth Avenue’], we were talking a lot about how things work behind the scenes at Russell Library and the history of the building,” Slowik said. “The patrons were very interested and ask[ed] me a lot of questions. [Haunted tours] was actually sort of the mystery group’s idea, really. They asked if we could do tours, and so I decided to ask my boss if we could try and pull it off this year. She said yes, so we did.”

The Russell Library “Frankenbuilding” is made up of four combined buildings: the church (1876), the Hubbard Room (1930), the bank (1970s), and the bridge between them (1980s). All structures are from separate time periods and different architectural aesthetic styles—none of which were actually built to be libraries. Tour groups traveled through all four buildings, visiting several spooky stops that carry historical significance to the library. 

Tour groups were invited to step inside the vault beneath the library’s children’s wing, which was once a bank. They admired the stained-glass windows that were added in Francis Russell’s purchase and Gothic Revival of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity. Groups marveled at the mysterious top two windows, blacked out during World War II with the rest of the stained glass, but curiously never cleaned off. Additionally, patrons stepped through the library’s courtyard to see the memorial of a librarian who passed away.

Emma Dhanda ’24 stated that her favorite spot on the tour was going up into the library’s ominous tower, which is normally closed off to patrons. In Gothic fashion, the stairway gets narrower and narrower as one ascends the spiral staircase. Although the area is not open to the public, there are mysterious handprints up and down the walls. 

“We went up to the [tower] and…the darkness of the area and the cramped quarters were very spooky,” Dhanda said. “And the history was really interesting.”

Talia Mansell, a younger sibling of a Wesleyan student visiting campus, shared that she loved the library’s two staircases that lead to dead ends, running into the ceiling. These, tour guides explained, are a result of the building’s construction and remodeling over the years.

“I thought [the tour] was cool,” Mansell said. “I liked the staircases that go nowhere. I would like a house with staircases that go nowhere.”

When the tours were originally being planned, the staff allotted 12 slots per group. However, when these quickly filled up during online registration, group size was expanded to 20 slots. Slowik explained that the turnout for Secrets of Russell Library has been fantastic, and she was happy to accommodate more interested individuals. 

“I expanded the numbers per tour from 12 to 20, and those [extra spots] basically filled up too,” Slowik said. “And now for [Friday, Oct. 28], we have those filled up plus wait lists…. Our goal is to allow as many people as possible.”

In addition to filling every tour, the library has received positive feedback about the tours from patrons. Dhanda shared her glowing review, saying it was fun to learn about the library’s history while also having a chilling experience.

“It was really fun and it was definitely spooky,” Dhanda said. “It was…a nice evening where you got to learn a little bit about the library, but you also get a few spooks in between…. It was a great way to spend an evening and get into the spooky vibe.”

While orating the fascinating history of Russell Library to patrons, tour guides also tell enchanting ghost stories about former employees who have been seen wandering the stacks beyond the grave. Assistant Director for Public Services and haunted tour guide Mary Dattilo shared that one story told on the tour, about a ghost who tapped someone on the shoulder and moved their hair, actually happened to her, leading her to believe that the library is certainly haunted. 

“These stories are not made up,” Dattilo said. “They’re absolutely true. That happened to me. That’s my office. I was having a meeting in it and I felt somebody on my shoulder and…then I had the other staff member who saw my hair move before that happened…. We should have paranormal investigators come in and take a look at the place.” 

Slowik has also heard stories from staff about seeing spirits around the building, but she harbors a slightly different opinion on the manifestation of ghosts in the library.

“I would personally think that unexplained circumstances are more like imprints from past times that people can see on occasion…something metaphysical that we don’t understand yet,” Slowik said.

Whether or not Russell Library is truly haunted, the tours were undoubtedly a successful way to combine history and mystery in one spine-chilling experience.

“I was just so blown away by how much effort the library staff put into creating this experience,” Dhanda said. “You could tell they were so invested in it and excited about it and that just made it all the more special.” 

Kat Struhar can be reached at kstruhar@wesleyan.edu

This article has been edited to correct two factual errors: the “Frankenbuilding” is made up of four buildings rather than three, and the stone in the courtyard is a memorial stone rather than a headstone, as the librarian is not buried there.

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