Friday, 25 July 2014

Conversations with Spirits, by E. O. Higgins

It is December 1917 and psychologically damaged Trelawney Hart is a habitué of the reading room of the Hyperborea Club in Pall Mall.  He had a singular upbringing at the hands of his father: ‘the colonel’ was one of those early Tiger parents who thought that an offspring could be moulded to become a prodigy, the sort of intensive education that John Stuart Mill had experienced.  As modern examples suggest, such a hothouse education can lead to an unhappy adulthood.  It does not help that additionally Hart became a widower at a young age, and the result of these combined pressures is that he is now an alcoholic, wasting his talents by drinking himself to death as fast as the cherry brandy will allow.  For reasons best known to herself he is indulged by the club’s co-proprietor Sibella, herself an eccentric who cannot have heard of dress reform because she creepily retains crinolines.

Sibella is pleased when Hart is shaken from his stupor by the arrival of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Conan Doyle wants him to participate in the investigation of one J. P. Beasant, who Conan Doyle is convinced is a genuine medium.  However, Conan Doyle does not wish Hart to report on a séance, but on something far more spectacular: Beasant has undertaken to dematerialise himself and walk through a ten-foot solid brick wall!  The wall is being built at the expense of the Society for Psychical Research on the beach at Broadstairs, the town where Beasant is resident, and Conan Doyle is acting as the SPR’s agent in the enterprise.  Bearing in mind Hart’s ferociously sceptical attitude, Conan Doyle believes that if he can be convinced by Beasant’s feat, anyone can.  The investigation requires Hart to take a train ride to the Kent coast, and at that point the misadventures begin.

Given Hart’s attitudes and the personal frailties he exhibits, one wonders throughout why Conan Doyle feels the need to engage Hart, nor why, having done so, he puts up with Hart’s boorishness as much as he does.  It is a nice touch that while lost in Ramsgate, having typically fallen asleep and missed his stop, Hart hooks up with a local vagrant who is down on his luck after also losing his wife.  Billy becomes Hart’s assistant, Watson to Hart’s Holmes if you will, though apart from acting as a drinking companion, Billy’s role is minimal and he does not act as the foil for Hart’s sharp intelligence one expects from such a pairing.

Conan Doyle is a frequent character in novels, but it is a surprise to come across a fictional
Harry Price for the second time this year, also in a first novel.  Hart meets him on the train down, and it transpires that they are going to witness the same event.  This is a Price before his reputation took off, and well before he became involved with Borley Rectory.  Even though he disappears for stretches, it is obvious that he is going to play a significant role in the story.

The explanation for Beasant’s ‘miracle’ is well done, but the essentials will probably have been worked out, long before Hart twigs the method, by anybody who has read something like Jim Steinmeyer’s
Hiding the Elephant.  It is also somewhat implausible, because the SPR would have sent representatives independent of Conan Doyle, as the Society was paying, and they would have insisted on inspecting all of the equipment used.  With that information they could have worked out how it was done fairly easily.  Of course this assumes that the SPR would have paid for this large and no doubt expensive structure in the first place (and with a war on it would not have been easy to acquire such a large quantity of bricks).  Why Conan Doyle thinks that walking through a wall buttresses Spiritualist belief in the Afterlife is not made clear, however miraculous it might be; Beasant’s consciousness is still that of a living being.

The title is somewhat misleading because the spirits Hart mostly converses with are, as the book’s attractive design indicates, out of a bottle, and apart from one séance there is little overtly Spiritualistic activity described.  However, there is a tiny hint at the end that Beasant may truly have some form of ability.  Detracting a little from the careful building up of the atmosphere, there are a number of turns of phrase that seem anachronistic for 1917.  And Hart would not have been telling Conan Doyle that he had read The New Revelation as it was not published until March 1918.  There were no Zeppelin raids over East Kent in December 1917 either.

The book has a slow start while Hart gets himself down to the seaside, but once there it picks up and eventually rattles along, and at times it is very funny.  That part of the world in winter is certainly well observed.  The novel’s ending suggests scope for a sequel, to see if Hart can work out his demons and divine Sibella’s feelings for him before he succumbs to alcohol poisoning.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology: International Conference, Utrecht, 12-14 June 2014

It was serendipitous that shortly after writing about the preservation of parapsychological archives recently I was invited to attend a conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on that subject.  The event was organised by the Dutch organisation Het Johan Borgman Fonds (HJBF) in collaboration with the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene (IGPP, Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health) in Germany and the Coalition for the Preservation of Extraordinary Human Experience Collections (CPEHEC) in Canada.  The purpose of the conference was to bring together those with an interest in archives relating to parapsychology, psychical research and Spiritualism – whether as archivists, librarians, or researchers – to discuss their common interest in acquiring, preserving and promoting collections in ways that maximise their scholarly value.  It was the continuation of an initiative begun in 2007 by Wim Kramer, the Managing Director of HJBF, to highlight the vulnerability of parapsychology’s heritage, prevent its destruction, and make it publicly accessible (see the free online journal Psypioneer Vol. 6, No 3, March 2010, pp.81-5, for an article by Kramer, ‘Preserving the History of Parapsychology & Spiritism in The Netherlands’, which gives the background).

Day 1 –Thursday

Wim Kramer welcomed the conference participants and talked about Johan Borgman, poet, painter (there is a gallery devoted to his paintings in Amsterdam) and healer, who founded HJBF in 1969.  Then Walter Meyer zu Erpen, archivist and President of the Survival Research Institute of Canada (SRIC), gave a brief historical overview of Spiritualism, psychical research and parapsychology entitled ‘The Archives of Parapsychology: Why Even Bother?’  Among other topics, he touched on the controversy over the biased editing of paranormal-related Wikipedia pages by sceptics, a long-running issue which erupted recently in the battle over Rupert Sheldrake’s entry.  We learned that such practices are not restricted to English-language Wikipedia pages.  zu Erpen talked about the prejudice the field faces not merely from well-known sceptical groups, but extending even to commercial companies, as happened when Psychic News asked Max Communications to quote for digitising the newspaper from 1932-2010.  The company declined the job because some of its employees were apparently uncomfortable with the newspaper’s subject-matter (see Psychic News, June 2014).   He noted the underfunding of archives and the challenges generally that archivists face in acquiring and preserving materials for generations of future researchers but, to answer the question posed in the title of his talk, how worthwhile the effort is in terms of knowledge advancement in areas that are fiercely contested but which are of great interest to large numbers of people.  As a demonstration of their commitment, SRIC has been gathering a library and archives which will eventually be housed at the University of Manitoba.  It was an excellent summary of the field and the role of historical collections in its development, and provided a sound foundation for the rest of the conference.

John Reed in ‘The Role of the World Institute for Scientific Exploration (WISE) in the Preservation of Parapsychology Literature and Collections’ outlined the remit of the World Institute for Scientific Exploration, begun in 2011 as a sister organisation to the Society for Scientific Exploration.  He ran through WISE’s programmes, most notably its Worldwide Resource Center (WWRC), or ‘WISEwiki’ as it is generally called, which is being set up as a balanced alternative to Wikipedia, with registration of contributors and vetting of content.  WISEwiki now contains some 30,000 pages and promises to be a valuable resource.  WISE is also concerned with literature preservation, both physical and digital.  In terms of physical preservation, WISE is concerned to collect, and find repositories for, material such as research files and correspondence, which are often rejected by libraries, and the Coalition for the Preservation of Extraordinary Human Experience Collections, which is linked to WISE and of which zu Erpen is the director, has been instrumental in contacting established archives to find suitable homes for acquisitions.  Additionally, WISE is compiling information on archive holders around the world, and what they have.  WISE is developing a digital library (observing copyright laws) that already contains a wide range of publications and it has set up another acronym, the International Coalition of Periodical Digitizing Organizations and Individuals (ICPDOI), to oversee this.  Digital preservation is a daunting task, being expensive and laborious, and Reed said that he was concerned to avoid duplication with other digitisation endeavours, a situation that has already occurred elsewhere.  To try to reduce wasted effort, ICPDOI is compiling a master catalogue listing periodicals worldwide, with their digitisation status, whether complete, in progress or not started, and are trying to keep track of those groups undertaking the digitisation.  The WISE website provides links to other sites where digitised materials are available.  The discussion mentioned the Society for Psychical Research’s own ‘alternative Wikipedia’, and Reed said that WISE had been in touch about this and that he thought there was scope for linkages between the two, though the SPR’s would be smaller than WISE’s.  In fact, throughout the conference Reed stated that WISE could act as a co-ordination centre for the dissemination of information.  In a field beset with resource problems it is essential, he said, that organisations cooperate to maximise their use.  Quality control, such as the quality of scans which can sometimes be poor, and metadata, which can be worse, was raised as an issue in digitisation.

Brandon Hodge stood in for Marc Demarest, who runs IAPSOP, the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult periodicals.  This digitises Spiritualist and occult periodicals, very broadly defined to include freemasonry, Theosophy, free thought, astrology and some other ‘fringe’ topics.  There is an ancillary element, the Standard Spiritualist and Occult Corpus (SSOC), which is devoted to digitising and making freely available online book-length texts.  Hodge characterised the work as ‘bootleg preservation’ as it is done on a voluntary basis outside formal archival structures.  The statistics are quite staggering in terms of the cost of carrying out high-quality digitisation and the numbers of pages scanned, currently in the region of a million journal pages and one and a half million book pages.  This has been carried out with virtually no outside financial support; nearly all material, equipment, finances and labour have come from IAPSOP’s four board members (despite the apparent formality of that term, Hodge stressed that IAPSOP is not an organisation).  In addition to their own efforts, they sometimes advise archive owners who wish to embark on a digitisation programme.  Hodge touched on some of the issues that confront anyone wanting to provide high-quality digitised copies: items being thrown away (last-minute rescues from skips and bins was a common theme of the conference) – institutions that should be careful custodians are often the villains of the piece and Hodge gave us the anecdote of an IAPSOP member walking past the New York Public Library and finding a nearly complete bound run of the Religio-Philosophical Journal in a skip; owners hoarding and refusing access because they are concerned that digitisation will devalue the originals; dealing with crumbling paper; institutions muddying the copyright situation by illegitimately claiming rights to material in their possession; the annoyance of publishers offering the unwary print-on-demand versions of books at inflated prices that are freely available as PDFs;  and problems in digitising old microfilm (that may itself be in poor condition) as institutions dispose of the necessary equipment.  Despite such obstacles, IAPSOP is doing an amazing job in the race against time to save disappearing publications, with little external support or even positive feedback from its users, and it deserves to be better known.  The discussion mentioned the expansion of the project to include more non-English language books (currently only some French and German volumes); the grotesque things that Google Books sometimes does when scanning; the preservation of items scanned by IAPSOP (they are retained); and migration as digital standards change, which can be expensive.

After lunch, Leslie Price discussed the online monthly Psypioneer which he founded and which is currently edited by Paul Gaunt.  In addition, Price is the archivist and librarian at the College of Psychic Studies.  In its current form Psypioneer has been published since 2004 and now has 600 subscribers.  It carries a mix of transcriptions of hard-to-find material (which was particularly valuable before the current flurry of digitisation) and scholarly commentaries.   Price stressed the problems that occur when we forget history, which is often muddled by misinformation, and lazily accept what is passed down, culprits often including academics who should know better.  He gave some examples of misconceptions that the journal has tackled, and argued that Psypioneer has contributed to a new awareness of the importance of having a full and accurate understanding of the subject’s past.  He touched on FOTA, The Friends of Theosophical Archives, which was recently formed to support and promote Theosophical archives around the world, and noted the particular challenges that archives face in conditions inimical to the preservation of paper, such as tropical climates and the hazards of political unrest.  Price was the only speaker directly covering the British situation, and it would have been useful to have looked at other archives there, not least the Society for Psychical Research’s, or the Harry Price Library, both of which Price could only allude to in passing.

As a useful case study of how archives can be used, Wilfried Kugel in his talk ‘In Search of “Hanussen”’ described his painstaking reconstruction of the life of mentalist Erik Jan Hanussen (Hermann Steinschneider), sometimes billed as ‘Hitler’s Jewish clairvoyant’ and who famously ‘predicted’ the 1933 Reichstag fire (though based on inside information as opposed to precognition).  Numerous myths, frequently contradictory, had accreted around Hanussen, and Kugel followed his trail for a decade through archives in a number of countries in order to strip out these myths and depict Hanussen in an objective light.  The achievement was all the more remarkable considering how archives in Germany have fared since Hanussen’s death in April 1933, including wholesale removal to the Soviet Union after the war.  Kugel emphasised the risk that archives can face, even from those one would think their friends, citing an eminent professor in the GDR who stole a significant file which was then lost when he died.  A passing reference to a company of First World War German dowsing soldiers created some discussion.  During his search Kugel encountered documents that he decided had been forged, which indicates the forensic skills a researcher needs in evaluating sources.

Ingrid van der Bij, Director of the Archives and Documentation Centre for Dutch Behavioural Sciences, spoke on ‘What, Why and How to Preserve’.  She gave concrete examples of some of the problems archivists face in the acquisition, analysis, preservation and storage of holdings, and in making them accessible.  Things to be considered run from forming a mission statement that guides management policy to records management at the other end of the process.  As she memorably put it, an archive is like a pet, needing to be looked after constantly.  Acquisition can be either passive, relying on donations, or active, and the former can be awkward if not everything offered is relevant to the archive’s collection policy.  Complications can occur when items are offered on loan rather than as gifts and are not then the archive’s property.  Alongside preservation the context needs to be researched so that the meaning can be retained with the item, and van der Bij mentioned the International Standard Archival Description (General) or ISAD (G), which is an international standard that provides guidelines for the content of archival descriptions.  You cannot just assume that archive users will beat a path to your door while you focus on conservation; how do they find out what you have?  Marketing, promoting the archives’ USP, is necessary, for example by producing articles for segmented audiences and mounting exhibitions highlighting the archive’s contents.  It is necessary to be aware of the ways in which users use data, so that the archive is kept relevant to evolving needs.  Discarding items is an act fraught with danger because future scholars may have interests that we cannot guess at.

Kramer had arranged a display of artefacts in the conference room, and to round off the afternoon he gave us an introduction to them, demonstrating how important it was to understand objects and how they worked in their historical context to be able to appreciate fully the reports in which they feature, something picked up by Brandon Hodge in his talk on the final morning.  Without this understanding a dimension is missing when reading the printed accounts.  He said that psychical research had deep roots in the Netherlands, and during the First World War half of the Dutch cabinet had been Spiritualists, but that the Second World War Occupation had caused considerable damage to the Dutch heritage.

The venue

Day 2 – Friday

Kramer kicked off the second day, this time talking about the ‘HJBF Archive Project - Some Lessons Learned’.  He reiterated the scarcity of Dutch Spiritualist and parapsychological material – both from the Netherlands or originating in former colonies –from before the Second World War, a situation caused by a combination of ideological prejudice, shortage of space, and simple indifference.  The work of the HJBF Archives Project began in 2007, with funding from the Foundation.  Before that time there was little Dutch parapsychological material in publicly-accessible collections and surprisingly little research into Dutch Spiritualism and parapsychology had been conducted; in fact during its search journals not even known to have existed were discovered.  Kramer described the work of the Foundation in acquiring collections and then finding a suitable home for them at national, regional or university level, in the Netherlands or elsewhere (such as the IGPP at Freiburg).  It does not focus on wider esoteric material as this is taken care of by other organisations.  The HJBF itself does not have a large collection, but is a facilitator, and the emphasis is on trying to acquire at least enough to be representative of the field as a whole.  Acquisitions run the gamut from books, journals, magazines, documents, audio and video recordings, to of course artefacts; it can be difficult to find homes for the non-print elements because of the storage issue and libraries’ collecting policies.  Kramer gave some examples of failures and successes in the enterprise.  The former category includes the archive of Wilhelm Tenhaeff, compiled over a period of 60 years, which was spirited away by his secretaries after his death and never recovered, probably destroyed.  The experience of finding that collections have gone missing or been dispersed is far from uncommon.  The success category includes the archive of Gerard Croiset, currently being indexed, and the 130 boxes of papers of the Dutch Spiritualist organisation Harmonia, which was established in 1888, that are now in the Utrecht Regional Archive.  In passing he remarked that there are few sceptical archives preserved.  Familiar difficulties faced by those trying to save collections include time pressures on relatives having to clear out a deceased person’s belongings and items kept in unsuitable conditions, such as damp cellars or lofts that are subject to fluctuating temperatures.  Kramer touched on the concerns that guide HJBF’s work, such as the financial implications of archives, some of which are collectible and fetch high prices, and which necessitates reliance on goodwill to make donations when funds for purchase are non-existent; the boundaries that have to be set when deciding what to collect; the sort of agreement that is reached with a receiving institution that might want to dispose of parts of a collection later; the cost of keeping artefacts in good condition; and problems posed by obsolete technological formats.  Success breeds success, and having saved and rehomed collections, others often hear of it and this encourages them to make donations.  As well as still looking for archives, HJBF is kept busy sorting and cataloguing acquisitions, and uses student volunteers as assistants.

As a break from the talks, the participants were treated to two activities for the rest of the Friday morning.  The first was a visit to the Utrecht Archive (Het Utrechts Achief) where we were given a reception and saw a special display on psychical research, plus their current exhibition on Utrecht during the First World War.  The second was a trip on the city’s canals in fine weather, which was a pleasant break from the serious business of the conference.

After lunch Shelley Sweeney, head of the University of Manitoba’s Archives and Special Collections, talked on ‘Prime Motivator: The Thomas Glendenning Hamilton Family Fonds as Stimulus for Acquiring Parapsychological Collections’, focusing as the title suggests on psychical researcher T. G. Hamilton and the Hamilton family fonds, which is held at the university.  After providing details of the Hamiltons’ activities she went on to talk about the issues involved in being the custodian of such an extensive body of material.  She underlined the necessity of active promotion, such as seminars and the use of social media, and noted the success of a ‘virtual exhibition’ and later a YouTube video of Hamilton’s photographs of ectoplasm, with a link to the Hamilton page on the University of Manitoba website.  Translations into different languages can extend the reach of publicity.  If a collection has a star or signature attraction this can be used as a hook to encourage interest more generally, as has been done with the Glendenning family.  By raising the profile, it is possible to stimulate research, attract acquisitions, and use them in fundraising activities.  It is necessary for the archivist to bear in mind the variety of purposes to which collections can be put, not only by academic researchers but also artists for cultural reworking, and these can be extraordinarily diverse in their range.

René Schurte spoke about ‘Two Parapsychology and Esotericism Collections in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’.  He is a librarian at Zentralbibliothek Zürich, looking after parapsychology and occultism among other subjects.  He gave an overview of the significant holdings in his care, notably Bibliothek Schlag, dealing with esoteric literature, and the collection of Schweizerische Parapsychologische Gesellschaft (SPG, the Swiss Parapsychological Society).  Medium and occultist Oskar Schlag, who died in 1990, left 25,000 books (of which only about 500 are rare volumes, it being very much a working library) to Zentralbibliothek Zürich, which collaborates with the Oskar R. Schlag Foundation.  The library is still located in his old home and is being expanded.  That of the SPG, of which Schlag was a founder, amounts to a further 3,000-odd volumes.  As a result of these acquisitions, Zentralbibliothek Zürich is now the most important centre in Switzerland for the study of parapsychology and esotericism.  Like other custodians, Schurte ran through some of the problems he faces.  Selection criteria are determined by costs of storage and preservation, and there may be conditions laid down by donors.  Working in a public library means that there are fewer specialists to call on for their expertise than would be the case in a higher education institution.  Promotion of the collections is not always easy, and ways of increasing access need to be examined.  The question session threw up the pan-European digital repository Europeana as an alternative to Google Books, and the way in which German-born but Swiss-resident Schlag links the parapsychological traditions of those countries.

The next speaker was Anna Rademakers, a subject librarian with responsibility for parapsychology and occultism at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Hague.  The library’s primary focus is books published in or about the Netherlands.  She spoke on ‘Parapsychological Collections in the Dutch National Library’ and gave some historical background on the library’s collections which cover witchcraft, Spiritualism, parapsychology, astrology, freemasonry, Theosophy and Rosicrucianism (it has the largest Hermetic manuscript collection in the world).  Holdings include archives from the Theosophical Society and Dutch parapsychologist George Zorab.  Some donations had come from HJBF.  Again care was a major theme, and marks were given on a number of criteria in a risk-based system to evaluate importance and value when prioritising conservation.  Digitisation includes using Google and the Dutch-language ‘Delpher’ website, which allows the library to attain its digital aims within strict financial constraints.  The recent travails of the Bibliotheca Filosofica Hermetica (Ritman Library), part of which, owned by the State, has gone to the Dutch National Library, were commented on in the discussion.

Eberhard Bauer, who besides other administrative posts at IGPP is head of its Department that covers Cultural and Historical Studies, Archives and Library, talked about the post-war renaissance in German parapsychology with the increase in funding available to it.  He went through the IGPP’s origins, its founding by Hans Bender, and its growth thanks to the bequests by Swiss biologist and parapsychologist Fanny Moser and by businesswoman Asta Holler.  He outlined its current activities in the natural sciences and experimental research; in social and cultural scientific research; and in counselling those who have had extraordinary experiences, plus the provision of information and documentation.  As well as Moser’s library (2,000 volumes) IGPP has that of Baron von Schrenck-Notzing (2,500 volumes).  Much of its heavily-used library, 60,000 volumes plus subscriptions to some 260 journals, is housed at Freiburg University, although IGPP itself has a large reading room, and the library is still growing at the rate of about 1,700 volumes per year, with heavy investment in it by the Institute.  It has a digitisation programme of German-language journals in collaboration with the University Library of Freiburg.  Supplementing its research files it has audio recordings, photographs, films and artefacts.  With its funding and staffing levels, and broad programme of interdisciplinary research in Spiritualism, occultism, psychical research, parapsychology and anomalies in general, IGPP is an institution to be envied.

The final talk of the day, ‘The Paranormal in Photography and Art: Research in the Context of Exhibitions’, was by Andreas Fischer, also of IGPP and a member of its Cultural and Historical Studies, Archives and Library Department.  He was involved in the touring exhibition that was accompanied by the tremendous book The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, and he talked about the cultural projects in which the IGPP has been involved, often in collaboration with other organisations, which combined photography, painting and drawing with the paranormal.  However, he had found that tracking down potential exhibits in public and private collections could often be a problem because of the lack of available information.  IGPP itself is rich in its collections of images, with thousands of prints, including Louis Darget’s ‘fluid photographs’.  Like Sweeney, he noted how material can be used in varying ways, listing a number of examples of artists who have been influenced by Schrenck-Notzing’s photographs, for example Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy, more recently Zoe Beloff and Alexander Gehring, and most famously Francis Bacon drawing over the illustrations in his copy of Schrenck-Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation and incorporating the images into his painting.  Fischer cited the way in which the 3-CD set ‘Okkulte Stimmen - Mediale Musik’ (‘Recordings of Unseen Intelligences 1905 – 2007’) has been sampled by composers.  Does such appropriation mean a loss of control, he asked, and who is to say what constitutes a proper or improper use of the sources?  On the other hand, artists can assume that images are public domain and ignore copyright, and reworking tears the image from its original context.  Fischer also highlighted the perennial problems of acquiring archives.  These include contending with competition from collectors with deep pockets, particularly for photographs, which can fetch very high prices nowadays.  There can be fragmentation through poor security, a lack of inventories, deterioration because of storage deficiencies, destruction of something not considered significant at the time – sometimes amounting to a ‘path of destruction’ – and so on.  As a case study, Fischer examined the chequered history of Schrenck-Notzing’s work.  He died in 1929, and Bender secured his estate in 1941 when the building in which his laboratory was located had to be cleared out quickly.  Unfortunately large quantities of papers had been destroyed after his death, and his widow spent weeks in the garden burning his correspondence.  Even more papers were destroyed before the rest were handed to Bender.   Schrenck-Notzing’s colleagues separated out what they decided to be valuable and discarded whatever in their eyes was useless or compromising, during which laundry baskets-full of glass plates were destroyed (you could hear groans in the room at this point).  Even then the travails of what had survived were not complete: the boxes were stored in the attic of the original IGPP building at temperatures that fluctuated enormously according to the season.  The result of this chequered history is the irrecoverable loss of great parts of Schrenck-Notzing’s legacy.  However, Fischer urged us to look on the bright side: bearing in mind the number of collections that have disappeared entirely, or the frequent unavailability of those that have survived, the ones to which we have access are of inestimable value.

Me making a contribution. Credit: HJBF PHCP 2014

Day 3 – Saturday

The final morning began with Marty Bax, secretary of the ‘Foundation for Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry and Related Currents in the Netherlands’ (OVN), talking on ‘Secret Knowledge: Esoteric Archives in the Netherlands’.  She sketched the Dutch situation regarding the study of esotericism, with a chair at the University of Amsterdam and two significant research libraries, the Cultural Masonic Centre (CMC) in The Hague and the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam.  The CMC is involved in the Dutch ‘Metamorfoze’ digitisation project to enable easy access to its collections.  OVN was founded in 2001, and Bax described its work in promoting esoteric archives, stressing its need to remain independent of other institutions, such as masonic organisations, and avoid bias in attitudes to an organisation’s subject matter.  Boundaries, across subjects and geographically, are less rigid than might be supposed, with members of societies having interests that cross them, for example linkages between Spiritualism and freemasonry (hence the ‘related currents’ in OVN’s name).  This phenomenon encourages an interdisciplinary approach in collecting and research, not least because information on one subject can often be found in the archives of another.  Bax discussed the problems OVN have encountered as well as the advantage of handing over inventoried archives in order to make them available quickly, which in turn necessitates acquiring contextual information where possible, such as genealogical records.  Receiving institutions are not always keen to take objects, and masonry has its fair share of these, but separating them from books and archives damages the integrity of collections, leading to a loss of knowledge.  On a positive note, where smaller archives are debating whether to make an investment to maintain safety and accessibility, or transfer their holdings to larger institutions that already possess such facilities, OVN is able to offer guidance.  To assist researchers access information that is sometimes not always easy to locate, OVN produced a research guide to masonic archives, its third edition expanded to include other esoteric archives plus Spiritualism; and an esoteric guide to The Hague covering the period 1850-1945.  Bax is currently transcribing the fragile Theosophical Society membership lists held at Adyar and OVN is developing a glossary of esoteric terminology.  The question session raised the problem of confidentiality with personal information, particularly acute with masonic and esoteric records, the publication of which can attract criticism.

The last speaker of the conference, Brandon Hodge, gave a vivid talk on physical artefacts.  Hodge, who runs the website ‘Mysterious Planchette’, is a collector of the instruments of Spiritualism, and he took us through the enormous variety of objects and the ways in which they evolved over the decades as Spiritualism developed, from table tipping, the Planchette, to the Ouija board.  Objects have often been neglected as archives concentrate on paper, and their fragility has meant that they are now often rare.  Many are owned by private individuals, making documentation impossible, and may be kept in sub-optimal conditions.  Hodge gave examples of the contextual information that can be culled through records as diverse as advertisements, patents, catalogues and book illustrations, and discussed the conservation of items that are often so fragile that it is a wonder that they have survived at all.  Often parts are missing or damaged beyond repair, in which case Hodge makes replicas of the parts, always ensuring that additions are reversible and properly documented.   Building facsimiles of lost instruments using illustrations and patent descriptions can help in the search for the originals by showing exactly what they look like.  We were given some useful conservation tips, the major one being a warning about bubble wrap, which can soften varnish and scar its finish.  Photographing objects is crucial, and we were reminded of the hostility that still occurs from those with prejudices against attempts to communicate with the dead.

The conference concluded with a general discussion, asking what we had learned, and where we go from here.  Among a variety of questions, we considered what if anything is unique about the archives of parapsychology, and what issues those working with them face, bearing in mind that many are volunteers, not trained professionals, and are feeding archives rather than being custodians of them.  A number of themes from the conference re-emerged, such as the precarious existence of some archives and variable rules on retention.  The problem of Google Books, which has flaws but cannot be ignored, was raised, as was that of web content not always being picked up by Google’s searches.

Topics included care in choosing institution for a donation carefully, and the dilemma if a potential recipient wanted to be selective and discard part of it, or if it were necessary to spread a collection across different institutions according to their collecting criteria.  Expertise can be lacking: professional archivists often know less about specialist collections than do amateur enthusiasts.  There is indifference to parapsychology and related fields from some of those controlling archives, though balancing this is enormous interest and helpfulness from others.  A possible strategy to counter hostility is for archives to try to find modern relevance in historical records, but it comes with the danger that tradition would become submerged by novelty, and there is a need to stabilise historical knowledge and verify facts.  The necessity of an awareness of historical context was emphasised, and it was suggested that the Parapsychological Association could play a greater role in promoting historical knowledge for researchers.  It was also felt that the label ‘rejected knowledge’ should itself be rejected and prominence given to how the subjects have influenced culture’s mainstream, rather than merely its fringes.  In that sense the archives of parapsychology are no different to other forms of collection and should be treated in the same way.

We discussed the dangers of destruction by families when the collector has not made proper provision for preservation, and the consequent need for letters of intent to be signed by owners of significant collections.  Even better is for donation to be made while the owner is still alive because such letters are not necessarily honoured, often simply because houses may need to be cleared out quickly, with little time for such niceties.  The tension between archives and collectors in acquisition was raised, and it was suggested that one way round the problem is to appeal to their sense of accumulation, giving an assurance that the donation’s integrity will be maintained, with the collector’s name attached.  A register of archives that are missing could be a useful focus for attracting material, not necessarily only that on the register (the British Film Institute’s ‘Missing Believed Lost’ campaign to locate missing films might be a model).

The lack of coordinated information sources became clear during the conference, and the desirability of a hub so that researchers have a reliable first port of call.  This would be particularly useful where records are only a small part of bigger collections and are easily overlooked.  WISE could act as a central resource, with articles and free advertisements.  Social media were mentioned as ways of sharing information.  Linking online in a ‘web ring’ reinforces search results and so improves rankings and enables cross-promotion.  Regular income streams can help to bring stability to what is an often unstable field and fund raising came up, with possible methods including requesting money for a specific purpose, or attracting endowments with names attached.  Even crowd-funding might be considered, and grants are available for digitisation.  Not mentioned was the increasing willingness of archives to allow photography, which means that there will be large numbers of ‘mirror’ collections of documents not otherwise digitised in private hands.  Should the originals be lost through some mishap, it would be possible to recreate them from what is essentially a decentralised backup system.

Along with the speakers’ abstracts the conference programme carries several articles.  The first is a reprint of ‘In Preservation and in Peril: Protecting Documentation of Paranormal Research’ that Christopher Laursen wrote for his ‘Extraordinarium website on the then-forthcoming conference, and which includes an interview with Wim Kramer.  Gerd H. Hövelmann contributes ‘The Scientific Estate of Spiritualist Emil Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg (1824-1878) – A Preliminary Note’, which discusses the papers of Dutch sceptical journalist Piet Hein Hoebens as well as those of Prince Emile who among many other pursuits in a busy life was an active Spiritualist.  Hoebens’ archive is an exception which goes to prove Kramer’s observation that sceptical collections are uncommon.  Alejandro Parra’s article is ‘Contribution of the IPP [Institute of Paranormal Psychology] to the Historical Research and to Preserve the Parapsychological Legacy in Argentina’, covering the IPP’s library, an exhibition of paranormal photography which it organised in Buenos Aires, and a research project on Argentinian Spiritualism.

The conference was truly international, and while participants represented a broad range of institutions, large and small, what clearly emerged was their common devotion to the archives they use and manage, and the considerable challenges and opportunities they face.  At the end it was suggested that we have a further meeting in a different country, perhaps in a couple of years’ time.  This proposal was warmly endorsed, and it will be interesting to see what the archives landscape looks like then.  In the meantime, it was clear that the conference has acted as a springboard for further discussions, that networking will carry on, and that the historical collections of parapsychology, and related currents of course, will be the stronger for it.  HJBF superbly organised and very generously funded the conference, and to them, and particularly Wim Kramer, a debt is owed by anyone with an interest in parapsychological archives.  Walter Meyer zu Erpen introduced the speakers and moderated the discussions. Matti, Evelyne, Susan and Loes did a great job with the administration, making all participants feel very welcome.  Utrecht is a lovely city and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay.

I’d like to thank Shelley Sweeney and Karen Ruffles for sharing their notes of the conference.

The conference website can be found here:  It has further information about HJBF and the conference, with contact information.  The lavishly-illustrated conference booklet can be downloaded as a PDF from the site.