by Christopher Laursen
A conference in Utrecht in the Netherlands seeks to better preserve the vast amount of documentation on paranormal research and experiences, many of which are at risk of being lost forever.
article | historical research
In preservation and in peril: Protecting documentation of paranormal research
February 18, 2014
Books, journals, diaries, and personal papers provide the greatest access to the paranormal past. Without them, scholars, paranormal investigators, journalists, authors, filmmakers, and even fiction writers and artists could only rely on the undocumented recollections of the living. They would have no ability to consult with the correspondence, research notes, philosophical debates, images, and even physical materials that provide one with centuries worth of experiences and thoughts on the extraordinary. However, the preservation of these historical materials is in constant jeopardy – a problem that a group of librarians, archivists and researchers will be addressing at an upcoming conference in the Netherlands. The Dutch foundation Het Johan Borgman Fonds (HJBF) is initiating and organizing a conference, Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology (PHCP) on 12-14 June 2014 in Utrecht, The Netherlands. They are working in close cooperation with the German Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health (Institut Grenzgebiete für Psychologie und Psychohygiene, or the IGPP, founded by parapsychologist Hans Bender in 1950) and the Coalition for the Preservation of Extraordinary Human Experience Collections (CPEHEC) to bring Dutch, German, American, Canadian, British, and other European archivists, librarians, and researchers together for the three-day conference. IGPP council member Eberhard Bauer, who directs its archives and libraries, and the president of the Survival Research Institute of Canada, archives consultant Walter Meyer zu Erpen, are working with the HJBF’s Wim Kramer in the organization of the upcoming conference. Among others, confirmed to participate so far is Shelley Sweeney of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections that holds the private collection of the Hamilton family  of Winnipeg's investigations into life after death in the 1920s to the 1940s through séances and mediumship. The family has been featured in the books Anatomy of a Seance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada  by Stan McMullin (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004) and Peter H. Aykroyd's A History of Ghosts (Rodale Books, 2009). This conference provides an opportunity for those who preserve and depend on archival documentation to discuss issues of critical concern. The papers of researchers and those who experienced paranormal events are often held by them until the day they die – locked away in cupboards, packed away in boxes in the attic, or hidden in filing cabinets. Once these people are gone, the documents are left in the hands of their heirs. In other cases, archives cannot sustain the collections. Holdings in Official Archives & Libraries Dutch director of the HJBF Wim Kramer, the organizer of the upcoming PHCP conference, has encountered societies that hold such collections who run out of money and cannot maintain interest in their archival holdings, nor store them any longer. Such was the case of the national and local chapter archives of the Dutch Spiritualist society Harmonia, said Kramer. “They all owned substantial libraries and archives going back to pre-war times, but they were not used anymore by the current membership. Times change and so does the interest of the members of the societies.” Harmonia’s well- maintained documents, rare journals and books hadn’t been touched by their members in decades, while the cost of housing them (with increasing rents) became a serious issue for the society. Kramer collected boxes of books and journals stored away in the offices and transferred them to the university library in Groningen, the National Library in The Hague and the Rotterdam Erasmus University Library. The archival papers, 130 boxes in total, are held at the Utrecht Regional Archive. “They are now openly traceable on the internet and available at those places for anyone who has an interest in studying them,” he said. Among the most recent acquisitions by the HJBF are the papers of the famed Dutch clairvoyant Gerard Croiset (1909- 1980) which include original documentation of hundreds of missing persons and police cases on which he consulted. The papers provide new avenues to graduate students, researchers, authors, and filmmakers to revisit Croiset's controversial work well beyond what they might find in Croiset's biography by Jack Harrison Pollack, news clippings, and other second-hand accounts. Freiburg’s IGPP is exceptionally dedicated to preserving their archival holdings, said Kramer. Its collection of books and journals is fully incorporated into the University of Freiburg’s library. The archival holdings comprise “an impressive collection” that includes audio-visual materials. “Although there is a professional archival staff, indexing the huge amount of materials might take many more decades,” he said. “However, they are saved in a special archive room and are open to any researcher who want to use them.” See the IGPP’s archival holdings, listed in German, here: http://www.igpp.de/english/archive/info.htm Myself, I recently wrote an article for Dissertation Reviews on some of these archives that I visited in the United States and Britain for my research project on twentieth-century poltergeist research. The collections held between these institutions alone were quite vast. Their preservation depended on adequate funds, staffing, and storage facilities. At Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, there was an incredible computer finding aid associated with J. B. Rhine’s Parapsychological Laboratory records. Likewise, the University of London’s Senate House Library has outstanding electronic finding aids and facilities. At Cambridge University Library, navigating the Society for Psychical Research’s collection depends on a printed directory; an electronic finding aid is in the works. At the University of West Georgia, parapsychologist Dr. William Roll’s papers are being slowly organized and I required the assistance from the archivist and graduate student volunteers to navigate the documents. The success of my own research has largely depended on, for example, Society for Psychical Research members who filed their reports on poltergeist cases right away, enabling them to become part of an active archival holding. Mary Rose Barrington, G. W. Lambert, Manfred Cassirer, and Donald West are but a few of those SPR members who maintained their reports in the Society’s holdings. Maurice Grosse, another SPR member who co-investigated the famed Enfield poltergeist, had his papers at home. Just before he passed on, he gave his papers and audio-visual materials to the SPR’s Archive Officer Dr. Melvyn Willin who catalogued them and transferred the papers to Cambridge University Library and takes care of the A/V and physical artefacts himself. But even when documents are deposited in libraries and archives, they may end up thrown out. For example, Kramer found a handwritten manuscript dating back to the 1920s by a Dutch author in one library. One week, he saw the manuscript, but a few weeks later, it was gone – replaced by mats and cushions used for yoga lessons in the library in the evenings. When Kramer asked a librarian about the manuscript, he was told, “Who cares, they are outdated after all.” “This was the moment I decided that it was time to start a project to collect and rescue as many as possible archives and books still in personal hands,” said Kramer. In 2006, he began tracing papers and collections that were kept in people’s cellars and attics – filling up his own attic in the process. In 2007, he persuaded the HJBF board to fund the Archive Project in which a three-room building was rented to house the rescued materials before finding more permanent homes in libraries and archives. (See the article “Preserving the history of parapsychology” in Psypioneer Journal, pp. 81-85.) Boxes in the Attic Of equal if not greater concern is when papers are not deposited in archives, but held by the people who originally made the documentation. Kramer said, “I have seen before that suddenly someone dies and that the house has to be cleared out within a fortnight or so. Time pressure means that only the most important belongings of the deceased will be saved by the relatives and that the rest is simply dumped. Note that paper archives and books on parapsychology or related topics are, in general, not seen by relatives as being of any importance at all and thus easily end up in the garbage dump.” In his article “Preserving the Archives of Psychical Research,” SPR member Tom Ruffles highlights the experience of writer James Clark  and poltergeist experient Shirley Hitchings in quite literally saving a portion of the papers of psychical researcher Harold Chibbett, who had investigated Hitchings’ case in the 1950s and ‘60s (see their book The Poltergeist Prince of London, History Press, 2013). Ruffles relates his “first-hand experiences of retrieving collections” and “trying to track down files only to discover that they have probably been thrown out by heirs for whom they hold no interest.” Many universities and libraries that receive papers on esoteric topics aren’t sure what to do with them. Kramer points out, “Most of the time no attention is given these collections nor is there a strategy to complete them.” Such are the perils of documenting one’s research. Ruffles encourages those who hold such documents to consider having them archived while they’re alive (as Maurice Grosse did). In his article, he outlines some current efforts. There is the slow-brewing Charles Fort Institute (CFI) set up by Fortean Times co-founder Bob Rickard. The Swedish Archives for the Unexplained (AFU) is developing significant holdings of English-language archives. Ruffles comments, “Sending things to Sweden has to be better than throwing them out, but it seems a shame that we are unable to preserve them in England.” There isn’t money to be made from these collections in preserving them – and, in fact, there is a significant cost incurred by the libraries and archives that hold collections. Digitization is becoming a better option for preserving and providing access to papers, journals, and books. Increasingly, high quality scans are made available, and can even be remotely accessed on home computers. SPR members and Lexscien  subscribers, for example, can access the SPR’s entire collection of journals and proceedings online; in Holland, the National Library is working on digitizing their holdings. The issue here is first digitizing a huge quantity of materials, and then maintaining them, ensuring the digital holdings are protected. Ruffles considers some of these issues as well in his article. Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology The upcoming June conference in Utrecht will feature 14 presentations on the topic of collections preservation. In addition to the conference sessions being held in the medieval centre of the city, there will be a free boat tour through Utrecht’s canals for conference attendees. For further details on the conference, check the HJBF website. Utrecht is located a short thirty minute train ride from the Airport Amsterdam Schiphol to Utrecht Central Station and there are many hotels located near the venue. If you have any questions or are interested in participating, you can e-mail the HJBF. Further Reading Tom Ruffles pointed me to the World Institute for Scientific Exploration (WISE) which is creating a large online Wiki, the World Resource Center (WRC).  From their website: “The WRC is a gigantic ‘wiki’ database, directory, encyclopedia (similar to Wikipedia), library, and archive designed to be a comprehensive resource for all topics and subjects, worldwide, related to integrative, complementary, indigenous, and traditional medicine, consciousness, alternative energy, scientific anomalies, and unsolved mysteries in science, technology, history and many other fields of knowledge.” Tom also reminded me of Marc Demarest’s excellent blog Chasing Down Emma that deeply explores the archives of Spirtualism. Also see The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals. For more on Dutch psychical research, see the interview I did with Wim Kramer and Ingrid Kloosterman. And speaking of interesting projects involving Dutch libraries, check out Architecture of Knowledge.
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Wim Kramer, right, drops off archival materials with an employee from the National Dutch Royal Library in the Hague in June 2009. [Photo courtesy of Wim Kramer.]
Some of the 16mm films and videotapes collected in the HJBF archive building. The films, from the early 1950s, include footage of healing sessions with Gerard Croiset. [Photo courtesy of Wim Kramer.]
Matti and Evelyn, master's students at Utrecht University, sort out Harmonia archival papers at the HJBF archive buildings in July 2013. [Photo courtesy of Wim Kramer.]
At the HJBF archive building, Tim, an undergraduate student at Rotterdam University,  prepares books and journals to hand over to the National Dutch Royal Library in Autumn 2010. [Photo courtesy of Wim Kramer.]
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