Libraries and “Merry Library Murder”

By N. M. Cedeño

The fact that the victim in my upcoming story entitled “Merry Library Murder” is a librarian is not a sign of hidden hostility or wishful thinking. Rather, the opposite is true. I set the story in a library because I spend a lot of time in libraries. Most of my reading material comes from the library, and I am a long-term library volunteer.

Of the many volunteering opportunities available in my children’s schools, the one to which I always gravitate is the assisting in the library. At one point, when I had an elementary, middle, and high school student in the house, I volunteered in all three libraries on a rotating basis each month. I started volunteering in school libraries about fifteen years ago and am still volunteering at the local high school library.

While volunteering, I’ve labeled, weeded, discarded, scanned into inventory, removed from inventory, added genre stickers to, added series number stickers to, shelved, checked-in, checked-out, magnetized, and demagnetized books. The books I’ve inventoried probably number well over 100,000. I’ve unpacked boxes of new books, packed boxes of old books, and shifted books on shelves. I’ve helped rescue books from a termite invasion and assembled and mounted signage. I once went through almost every picture book in an elementary school library to place red stickers on the spines of the ones with reading tests available for them. That meant looking up every single book on the computer to see if it had an associated test before placing or not placing a sticker on it. In order to raise funds for libraries, I’ve operated registers at more Scholastic Book Fairs than I can remember.

Last year, I helped genre-fy the entire fiction section of a high school library. How does one genre-fy a library? One separates the books by genre and creates sections: adventure, horror, science fiction, mystery, suspense, supernatural, fantasy, realistic, romance, historical, sports, humor, and classics. Graphic novels get their own section and genres, as do the books in languages other than English. This process required me to shift all the non-fiction books to make space. Consequently, I may be the only one in the entire community who has held almost every single book in the local high school library in my hands. That’s over 30,000 books.  

By far the most painful library duty I’ve ever performed is weeding fiction books. Removing fiction books from the collection that have sat on a shelf for years, untouched and unread, is a sad thing to do. But it’s something that has to be done. Shelf space is limited and new books are coming out every day.

Weeding non-fiction books that haven’t been read in years is less painful. If the material in the book is obsolete, it deserves to be removed from the library to make room for more current material. Who wants to read “How to Build a Webpage” out of a manual written in 1996? Books on teen pregnancy resources from the 1980s aren’t likely to be helpful to anyone today either. The oldest books I pulled from the shelves were from the early 1950s. They may have been useful in an archive somewhere, but not a high school library. After a day of weeding books, my hands are usually black with grime from decades of accumulated dust.

So to reiterate: I love libraries. And librarians. And Library Assistants, too. Many thanks to all the library staff I’ve worked with over the years. Sara, Becky, Maureen, Sarah, Ronda, Charity, Christina, Carole, Alyson, and all the rest, you are the best!

However, the victim in my upcoming short story, entitled “Merry Library Murder,” is a librarian. And yes, she is murdered in her own library during her town’s holiday festival. But this story is a holiday who-dunnit. Which means that justice will be served. If you’re looking for a quick holiday mystery, watch for Black Cat Weekly #68, coming out in late December. Or subscribe to Black Cat Weekly and get great reading delivered to your inbox every Sunday.

*All pictures by Pixabay.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com

Alice Littlefield Residence Hall: Inspiration for a Ghost Story

“Alice’s ghost is rumored to haunt the dorm, but don’t worry, she’s a benevolent ghost. She likes to watch over students. Here is her picture,” said the tour guide escorting the new freshmen residents around the Alice Littlefield Residence Hall on the day I moved into the dorm at the University of Texas at Austin back in my college days.

A drawing of Alice Littlefield by her niece, Sarah Harral Duggan, that hangs in Littlefield Residence Hall.

Littlefield Hall was built in 1927 and is the oldest residence hall, or dormitory, on campus. George Littlefield, a former university regent, cattleman, banker, and Confederate soldier[1], donated the money for the building’s construction, specifying that it should be named for his wife Alice and that it should house only women students, to give them a homelike environment while attending the university. Alice and George’s children didn’t survive early childhood, a common tragedy of the late 1800s, so they used their wealth to educate their 17 nieces and 12 nephews, paying for all 29 to attend the University of Texas. The Littlefields housed a revolving door of student relatives in their Victorian mansion on the edge of the campus. Perhaps this is why Alice is rumored to still be watching over students.

In my two years of residence in Littlefield Hall, I never saw any ghosts, but I could see how the age and character of the historic building could inspire ghost stories. At that time, the building still featured an ancient Otis elevator that required the user to manually close, first, a gate and, then, a door before it would operate. Residents were only allowed to use that elevator if injured or if they were moving something heavy to an upper floor. The dorm rooms themselves had original doors, with giant old-style keyholes and transom windows painted shut above the door. Utility pipes added in decades after the building was completed ran along the walls in the rooms. Windowsills were crusted deep with layer upon layer of ancient paint. Air conditioning units had been added to the rooms under the windows, which we were forbidden to open, but many girls opened anyway. The building had atmosphere and charm, and was very old: the perfect place to imagine ghosts.

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Exterior of Littlefield Residence Hall, photo by N. M. Cedeno

In fact, some of my fellow residents insisted that they had experienced something paranormal in the dorm. One girl described seeing her books move off her desk and fall to the floor. Another swore to me that she had seen a ghostly girl, wearing only panties and bra, standing in front of the mirror inside one of the two walk-in closets in her third-floor dorm room. When I visited the dorm recently, one of the residents told me that she had selected the building because it was the closest she could get to living in a Hogwarts dorm[2].

2019-DegreesofDeceit-eBook (1)Therefore, when I decided to set one of my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries at the University of Texas, I didn’t have to look very far to find inspiration. My former residence’s history and reputation for ghosts inspired me to use a fictional version of Littlefield Hall as the setting for my paranormal mystery novel, Degrees of Deceit. And, of course, my fictional dorm, called Dellonmarsh Dorm, is occupied by a benevolent female ghost, looking out for the residents as they are harassed by a malevolent prankster intent on disrupting the academic semester.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Footnotes:

[1] George Littlefield is a controversial figure. He was a generous philanthropist and supporter of women’s education, and a former slave-owning, proud Southerner with the attendant prejudices of that position. His heroes were Confederate generals, and he paid for their statues to be placed on the UT campus. Those statues were removed from campus several years ago. 

[2] The fictional Harry Potter school also known for its stately antiques and ghosts.