Monday, 20 June 2011

Memories of the Harry Price Library

Sarah Sparkes, who runs a blog detailing The Ghosts of Senate House, has asked for accounts of what it was like to visit the Harry Price Library when access to the room housing it was possible for members of the public. I was just going to email some quick thoughts, but decided that it was worth putting down as much as I can recall from that period. I have found a file of correspondence, plus some photographs, unfortunately in black and white and now a bit scuffed.

I used the Harry Price Library (HPL) for a number of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Working in the City, it was an easy bike ride to Bloomsbury, and I spent a lot of time in the HPL. This was particularly so in the period 1987-1992, when I was taking a part-time psychology degree at Birkbeck, next door to Senate House, where the HPL is housed. If it had not been for the fact that I had a full-time job and family I would have spent even more time there I’m sure.

The librarian in charge of the HPL, Alan Wesencraft, was extremely welcoming and helpful. He would meet visitors by arrangement and escort them in the lift to the eighth floor where the HPL occupied a surprisingly small space; or he would arrange for visitors to let the main desk know that he was expecting them, and they would ascend on their own. Alan, or Wesey as he was generally known, had actually retired in 1977 and worked only part-time as the HPL’s Honorary Curator, so eventually I, like other regulars, was given a card that enabled me to ask for the key if he was not there and travel up to the HPL where I would work unsupervised and often alone.

The space occupied by the HPL had a cosy feeling (or perhaps that is nostalgia giving it a glow). The wind used to whistle round, which was atmospheric. There was a good view but there was never time to spare for looking out of windows. Sometimes there would be other people working at the small tables and I seem to remember there was only space for three people at any one time. The rest of the floor was very quiet, seemingly unvisited. I remember going for a walk around the deserted stacks, finding it creepy and unnerving in the semi-darkness.

By contrast there was a friendly atmosphere in the HPL, I suppose a sense that we were a select group, though there was never much chit-chat when I was there. Amazingly people used to bring in packed lunches to eat as they worked because once you were in it was a nuisance going back out, so it was wise to come prepared. The hospitable Wesey used to introduce researchers to each other. I remember meeting Ruth Brandon, who was writing her book on Houdini at the time. The library was not merely a monument to Price but was evolving, with new material being added, and Wesey would delight in showing acquisitions, or correspondence he had received.

Despite the cramped environment everything was well organised. There was always a huge feeling of serendipity when browsing the shelves, not knowing what might turn up. You felt like a small child in a toyshop, wanting to see everything as quickly as possible, unable to decide what to look at first, knowing you could spend years in there and only scratch the surface. In addition to the shelves of books there were film canisters on the window ledges, and filing cabinets with photographs, correspondence and clippings. One cabinet housed Eric Dingwall’s files, now sadly embargoed but then freely available to researchers. Had I realised that they would become inaccessible I would have made more use of them when I had the opportunity.

By 1993 Wesey was coming to the library only once a week, and change was in the air, with the University of London authorities tightening up what they saw as a lax situation. Unfortunately it would seem that some people abused Alan’s trust and things went missing. When I asked him for a replacement card for the eighth floor in April 1993 he replied that he was not allowed to issue any more. He also said that his two-year fight to prevent the introduction of charges had been unsuccessful

This restriction on our freedom was naturally unwelcome to the HPL community, and an attempt was made to reach a compromise which would allow readers to retain some rights. Regular users of the HPL received a letter, dated 4 November 1993, floating the idea of a Friends organisation:

We are writing to you and other users of the Harry Price Library, with the support of Mr Wesencraft the Hon Librarian, as he felt that you might be interested in some recent developments concerning the library

You might have heard that over the summer, the Director of Special Collections at University of London Library wrote to some users of the Harry Price Library, stating that the terms of usage would change. Essentially, the library wants to do away with the existing system, by which readers were permitted to collect the key and use the library whenever they chose, whether Mr Wesencraft was present or not.

The library’s intention is that from now on, books from the HPL will be produced for readers in the Palaeography Room and that direct access to the library will be restricted to Wednesdays when Mr Wesencraft is present.

This presents a number of difficulties. To begin with, the Palaeography Room is only open between 10 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on weekdays. In addition, as you will know, the HPL is not properly catalogued and therefore locating books is more difficult than is usually the case. This will almost certainly cause delays for readers. In addition, as we all know, part of the charm and fascination of this unique collection, is that so much is revealed by simply browsing – something that will largely be denied to us.

In view of all this and with due regard to University of London Library’s concern for the preservation of the antiquarian books, films, photographs and other materials, we have suggested a compromise to the Librarian and the Director of Special Collections.

The central point of our plan is to establish the ‘Friends of the Harry Price Library’. It is proposed that the Friends would assist Mr Wesencraft in his work as Librarian and eventually take over from him. At some point, the Friends would assist the University Library with the cataloguing of the HPL. It has also been suggested that the Friends could also help to raise funds for the upkeep of the collection. In return, the Library would grant the Friends continued direct access, although the details of this have yet to be worked out.

Naturally the proposal will only come to fruition if we have the support of committed users of the Harry Price Library. If you care about the Library and wish to have continued access to it, we would be very grateful for your assistance in this enterprise.

We are arranging an inaugural meeting to establish the Friends of the HPL, to be held at 2.00 pm, on Saturday 4th December 1993. The meeting will be held in the Ecclesiastical History Room of the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1.

We would be most grateful if you could attend this meeting; if however, this is not possible, do please write to us with your views and ideas. Any support that you can give would be of great help.

I attended the meeting, and the agenda for the meeting listed: Welcome and opening remarks; General discussion; Appointment of officers; Date of next meeting; Visit to the HPL. Members of the Society for Psychical Research that I recognised were Hilary Evans, Rosemary Dinnage and Maurice Grosse. Sadly but unsurprisingly the idea came to nothing, and we all knew an era had ended. No future generation of researchers would be able to sit, surrounded by Price’s collection, and soak in its atmosphere.

I certainly missed the HPL, and I felt a frisson of recognition when Michael Aspel used the room as the setting for the first series of Strange but True? in 1994. Camera angles made it look larger than it was, but the location was easily identifiable from the distinctive red and white Bell, Book and Candle poster on the side of a filing cabinet.

My connection with HPL was not quite over though. I became co-coordinator of a small team called the Anglia Paranormal Research Group, and in 1996 (by which time his visits to the HPL had dwindled to once a month) Alan agreed that to help boost our funds we could produce a facsimile – or as close as possible – edition of the famous 1937 Blue Book which Harry Price had given to volunteers helping him to investigate Borley Rectory. This project was a great success and helped to defray the expenses of spontaneous case investigations. Wesey finally retired in November 1998, after an association with the University Library which stretched back sixty-five years.

When he died in late 2007, I was glad to be able to write an obituary, as a mark of respect to a kind, knowledgeable man. He would have been appalled when, in 2008, rumours circulated that the HPL might be broken up in a cost-cutting exercise as a result of the University of London losing some of its funding. I was among those expressing grave concern that this treasure could be lost, and fortunately the feared disposal never materialised.

The University of London Library mounted an exhibition drawn from the HPL in 2004. It showed some gems, but it felt like standing outside the toyshop, staring through the window. Research is now more clinical, and ordering things to be fetched just isn’t the same as having direct contact, even though the reasons for forbidding access are understandable. Sitting in the room, there was a sense of continuity with the past, and one could feel that Harry Price himself might put his head round the door to see how you were getting on, and tell you about the collection of which he was so justifiably proud.


Price, Harry. The Alleged Haunting of B____ Rectory: Instructions for Observers, London: University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, 1937.

Ruffles, Tom. ‘Alan Wesencraft’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 72 (No.892), July 2008, pp.188-90.

The Magical Library of Harry Price: An Exhibition of Books, Archives and Artefacts from the Collection of a Psychic Investigator and Ghost Hunter (19th April – 30th October 2004).