5 Archives on the Modern Metaphysical


5 Archives in which to explore the Modern Metaphysical

Increasingly, scholars have been exploring the modern metaphysical  what has been considered on the fringes of human interests but (as these scholars have shown) actually constitute a significant part of people’s lives, past and present. The study has been propelled by documentation left behind by the historical actors who have studied and pursued the metaphysical  heterodox religions such as occultism, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, and controversial sciences such as psychical research and parapsychology. Here, I will review five archives that provide excellent entries into the historical documentation of the modern metaphysical:

– Rubenstein Library, Duke University, Durham NC, United States of America
– William G. Roll Collection, Ingram Library, University of West Georgia, Carrollton GA, United States of America
– Cambridge University Library, Society for Psychical Research Collection, Cambridge, United Kingdom
– Society for Psychical Research Library, Kensington, London, United Kingdom
– Senate House Library, University of London, London, United Kingdom

I visited all of these archives during a short burst of document digitization in August and September 2012. But first, a mini-historiography for those wondering about this study.


Mini-historiography of American and European Metaphysical Pursuits

The current historical study can be traced to psychologist and psychical researcher Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research (1968) and, crucially, Henri Ellenberger’s groundbreaking and epic The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) that considered the primitive and occult lineage of dynamic psychiatry and psychoanalysis as well as properly launched the historical study of psychiatry. Psychical research received deepening scholarly treatment by Frank Turner (1974), Janet Oppenheim (1985), Ann Braude (1989), and Alex Owen (1989), and David Hess’s work on Brazilian espiritismo in relationship to mainstream medicine (1991). American parapsychology was first examined by Seymour Mauskopf and Michael McVaugh (1980) and sociologist James McClenon (1984), and has received limited attention since, apart from popular writer Stacey Horn’s excellent Unbelievable (2009). Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing new wave of scholarship from a variety of disciplines that shows how occultism and psychical research illuminate larger historical contexts, such as Alison Winter’s exploration of mesmerism as mainstream British science at the turn of the nineteenth century (1999), Joy Dixon’s relationship of feminism, politics and Theosophy (2001), Corrina Treitel’s analysis of the workings of popular occultism in Wilhelmine to Nazi German society (2004), and Heather Wolffram’s look at boundary sciences in fin-de-siècle Germany (2009).

The most recent endeavours encourage interdisciplinary thinking, such as the works of historian of religion Jeffrey Kripal and the annual conference Exploring the Extraordinary. From my own experience, what makes the study work well is creating a dialogue with today’s psychical researchers and parapsychologists who are keenly interested on the past of their field of study. Presenting at their conferences affords an opportunity to gain insight and feedback from the living people who know that history intimately, and can guide you to the materials in the archives like no one else.


How My Own Research Fits

My current research looks at the epistemological transformation of the poltergeist phenomenon that took place after the Second World War. This is a phenomenon where mysterious noises are heard or objects move on their own without apparent causation. With the popularity of psychology and psychoanalysis, parapsychologists found a new way of considering what might cause the phenomenon. Along with long-standing ideas that a mischievous spirit of the dead or trickery was at work, a hypothesis that living people somehow employed psychokinetic abilities came forth. I am interested in how knowledge was remade around something that could not be readily explained  and therefore, as with any historian, interactions and ideas shared between people is of primary interest to me. To explore this topic, I visited four collections and one library dedicated to psychical research and parapsychology, all of which contain primary sources on poltergeist investigations.


Self-Service Digital Photograph in These Archives

Before I summarize these archival sites, I want to point out that they all permitted me to digitally photograph the documents in their collections. More so, they all had sufficient lighting to photograph documents handheld and without flash. This was a tremendous asset, condensing what would have been maybe a year of sitting in the archives into two months of intense photographing. An exploratory visit to Cambridge and Duke’s finding aids were particularly helpful in achieving this. While this process may warrant an article unto itself, I can share the following tips to digitally photograph archival materials:

  • Photograph relevant materials as they appear in the archive, including the box and file numbers, to recreate how you encountered everything.
  • Ensure that you clearly photograph dates for clippings from newspapers, periodicals, etc. This makes citation much easier.
  • Once you have your “sea” of digitized materials (I came home with 25,000 images), get to work on renaming your files to indicate the content to enable easy use. Personally, I kept the digital camera file name and simply added (in brackets) the content in a way that was consistent for bibliographical citation.
  • Digitizing documents does not give you the right to reproduce them or share them online; they are, after all, copyrighted materials. However, using them as images in academic conferences should be acceptable. (If you are not sure, check with your archivist.)
  • Lastly, try to have a camera that is good in low light and that makes no noise (turn off the bells and whistles, and avoid using a camera with a shutter sound as some archives do not allow single-reflex lens cameras). I found my Sony camcorder the best for flat document photos, better than my fancy Lumix SLR hybrid where I had more (albeit artfully) out-of-focus shots. Tripods are generally not allowed in archives.


A review of Rubenstein Library, Duke University, Durham NC

Duke University was the center of American parapsychology with the formation of J. B. and Louisa Rhine’s laboratory to experiment with extra-sensory perception starting in 1929 (correspondence in the archive stretches back to 1893). While the lab reformed off-campus as the Foundation for the Research of Man in 1965, and continues today as the Rhine Research Center, the Parapsychology Lab collection at the Rubenstein Library contains the full records of the lab’s activities and correspondence up to the Rhines’ deaths in the early 1980s. Also contained at the Rubenstein are the papers of parapsychologist John Beloff.

Upon arrival, you can register online with the assistance of a staff member. From there, it is very easy to search the online finding aid to get specific files in the library or off-site. Note the search box on the right hand of the screen. Correspondence, for example, is arranged by date and last name, with a variety of special folders dedicated to specific experiments and incidents, such as the Seaford poltergeist case, among the best documented that is central to my own research. You can either ask staff to retrieve a box for you as you collect the one you are looking at, or you can book them online. This archive is not only easy to use, but it has a crew of the friendliest, most helpful archivists I have ever come across. It was a complete joy to work in this space over the course of a month, and I find myself reflecting fondly upon my time there.

Self-service digital photography of archival materials is permitted, and there is a variety of hands-on equipment available, such as a space to mount your camera if you are photographing more detailed documents. There is also a reasonably priced photocopier right in the reading room. The reading room environment was busy and energetic with researchers sitting down a row of large tables, and archival staff is available at a front desk as well as through a window in the reading room. The archive is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. There is a nice café near the library and good food choices within short walking distance. Durham city transit is good to the get to the university, and parking will cost somewhere around $10 a day.

Ed. note: The Rubenstein Library has started a major renovation project that will continue through the summer of 2015. You will need to request materials two full business days before your visit. For more details on visiting the Rubenstein Library, click here. For the Rubenstein Library’s blog, “The Devil’s Tale,” click here.

A review of the William G. Roll Collection, Ingram Library, University of West Georgia, Carrollton GA

Of the five archives reviewed here, this one has a fairly new collection, the papers of American, Oxford-educated parapsychologist William G. Roll (1926-2012), who started his career at the Rhines’ Parapsychology Lab before directing his own Psychical Research Foundation which investigates survival after death. Roll was involved in many types of experimental and field investigative work, from extra-sensory perception to poltergeist cases, the latter of which he is best known.  He wrote two books and many articles on the topic, actively hypothesizing that energetic and psychological aspects were to be explored in cases of anomalous phenomena.

Located in rural Georgia about an hour’s drive west of Atlanta’s airport, the University of West Georgia was where Roll studied and taught psychology up to his retirement, so it makes sense that its small archive would hold his collection. Graduate students in psychology have been working to organize recent acquisitions, and much of his correspondence from the 1950s to 1980s is organized. In the boxes that are currently being organized lies the heart of his experimental and field work, and I was fortunate to have a graduate student assist me in locating some key cases to my research. Head of Special Collections Suzanne K. Durham was very helpful in pulling a mass of boxes for me to look through, and there was a student present during her lunch break to enable me to work through the day. There is a food court located about a five-minute walk from Ingram Library, though a packed lunch would be a good idea. The archive itself is located on the lower floor of the library; just ask the front desk for directions.

Ed. Note: the Head of Special Collections is now Blynne Olivieri

At this time, there is not a finding aid for Roll’s collection, and it is best to e-mail Ms. Durham well ahead of time to inquire about research. Self-serve digital photography is permitted, and I was generally the only person to use their brand new, air-conditioned reading room (definitely nice in that southern heat if you are there in summer months).


Cambridge University Library, Society for Psychical Research Collection, Cambridge

The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) moved its archival collection from its offices to Cambridge University Library (CUL) Manuscripts in 1989. The cataloging of the collection is a continual work-in-progress. You can get a general sense of its contents in the binders kept behind the counter at Manuscripts, from which there is enough to go on to find materials, for example, by names of SPR members, thematic topics, and case study locations and years. There are more detailed lists for special subcollections, such as the correspondence of Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir William Barrett, and mediumistic sensation D. D. Home.

Additionally, it is worth noting that at nearby Wren Library, Trinity College, you can find the papers of Frederic Myers and Henry Sidgwick, among the SPR’s founders in 1882, and W. H. Salter, an incredibly important figure in the Society’s development in the twentieth century.  Wren Library also holds the papers related to the SPR’s massive early-twentieth-century project to find proof of survival after death, the cross-correspondences. I did not use these materials myself, so consult with the Wren Library’s website for further information.

Some more recent acquisitions at Cambridge University Library, such as the collection of psychical researcher Maurice Grosse, have detailed lists of contents thanks to the organizational work of the SPR’s Honorary Archives Liaison Officer Melvyn Willin, conservator of the SPR’s audio-video collection (some 1,000 tapes and 100 videos held in Essex).

Just recently, CUL Manuscripts permitted self-service photography, which saves the cost of having things photocopied or scanned through CUL’s Imaging Services. In simple terms, you need to sign a declaration and use a digital camera that is silent (e.g. no beeps, bloops, or shutter clicks).

The official go-to-person at CUL Manuscripts is Peter Meadows, who has always been very helpful, along with the friendly Manuscripts staff, in meeting my requests.

E-mailing both CUL Manuscripts and Mr. Meadows well ahead of time and giving a sense of what files you are looking for is very helpful as they will have a good selection of materials pulled from the shelves for you on your arrival date. Follow up a week ahead of your visit.

I found that materials were pulled within a reasonable time upon request; I was rarely left waiting. It is good to make sure Mr. Meadows is available during your planned visit as he directs staff to the materials you seek. Check the opening hours and beware of the surprising annual maintenance closure in the first week of September! You will find CUL Manuscripts on the third floor; directions can be given from the front desk of the library.

A preliminary visit, or arriving simply to look through their catalog over the course of the first day, will give you a sense of the materials available through their printed finding aids.

To gain access to the SPR Collection requires two steps. First, acquire a letter from the SPR Secretary, Peter Johnson, or your academic institution to gain access. Second, upon arrival at CUL, you will obtain a library card through Admissions, located to the right of the library’s reception, down the stairs just off of the room where there are interesting archival exhibitions. Admissions opens at 9 a.m. (with a 12:45 to 2 p.m. lunch closure).

There are lockers available to deposit your belongings just down the stairs to the left of reception using digital combination lockers, and you can keep other belongings in lockers just outside of Manuscripts (obtain a key from Manuscripts reception). Pencils, paper, cameras and laptops are permitted in the Manuscripts room. To see archival materials, you will fill out a simple library slip that you sign upon receipt of materials; you get to keep a copy for your records and for future reference.

Myself, I have found membership in the SPR  to be tremendously useful in this process. It connects me to the members of the SPR who are very knowledgeable about its history and archives, as well as a subscription to its Journal and Proceedings, and the invaluable access to its digital collection of journal articles via Lexscien, which also holds access to a variety of other parapsychological publications at a reasonable fee.

Ed.Note: For more quick thoughts of the Cambridge University Library, see Audrey Truschke’s “Fresh from the Archives” on Persian Manuscripts in the United Kingdom.


A review of the Society for Psychical Research Library, Kensington, London

Where CUL Manuscripts provides a grand archival experience in a large, well-staffed reading room with access to an affordable and quite delicious cafeteria, the SPR maintains a collection of books and periodicals at its cozy and intimate location in beautiful Kensington at 49 Marloes Road.

The SPR’s rare books collection is held in Rare Books at Cambridge University Library itself, which also contains books on psychical research published in Britain, especially since 1989. I also found the rare 1970s Canadian journal New Horizons held at CUL. The SPR Library, however, is an excellent resource when doing research on British and international psychical research.

The SPR Library is open Tuesday and Wednesdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment with SPR Secretary Peter Johnson. SPR members can borrow materials from the library, and there are materials (books and audio tapes of lectures) available for purchase as well.

In its collection are a huge variety of journals on psychical research and parapsychology, including a rare collection of William Roll’s Theta, the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) magazine Anomaly and its newsletter, the hard-to-find Journal of the American Society of Psychical Research, the Parapsychological Association’s Journal of Parapsychology, and of course a full set of the Society’s own Journal and Proceedings (which are also held at Cambridge University Library). I was permitted to use my digital camera to photograph articles from journals.

Peter Johnson is available to show you where things are and kindly offers coffee or tea to visitors. The large collection of books, all alphabetized by author and many of them (separate from the rare books exclusively held at CUL) are hard to find elsewhere. The collection of books is searchable using the SPR’s in-house online catalog. You certainly will not find the majority of these printed resources in a single space elsewhere. The SPR is also a great space to meet local members who may have insights for your research.


A review of the Senate House Library, University of London, London

Senate House Library is located in a striking 19-story art deco tower in the heart of the University of London, a stone’s throw away from The British Museum, the Wellcome Collection, and Euston Square. The library is an equidistant walk from Goodge Street and Russell Square underground stations. Of the archives reviewed here, Senate House Library has the most stringent admittance procedure. I have met individuals not affiliated with universities who were turned away. However, with a letter from my university department’s graduate secretary, student card, and e-mail consultation with the archivist ahead of my visit, I had no difficulties.

The architecture produces a howling wind sound in the otherwise warm reading room, which adds an appropriate ambience when looking at archival materials on the supernatural. Senate House has a rich collection in the topical realms of psychical research and occultism, I did research in the collections of ghost hunter Harry Price and energy healer Matthew Manning. They also include such items at the nineteenth-century Anne Rushout diaries and the papers of twentieth-century psychical researchers such as Paul Tabori, Eric Dingwall and Trevor Hall, and the Buddhist and Spiritualist scholar Caroline Rhys Davids.

Senate House has a top-notch online catalog  for Archives & Manuscripts, accessible from anywhere. Once you find an item, you may find its root collection or papers, from which you can download a .pdf file that details the contents of each collection. Amazing! From those files, you can request one item at a time by filling out a request slip; however, staff were accommodating in taking multiple slips at a time, pulling many items and putting them aside so I didn’t have to wait to look at files. They permit free self-service digital photography, and the agreement regarding photos is kept on the tables at which you look at documents. Opening hours and fees for image reproductions are posted online. Lockers are available within the reading room to store your belongings.

Christopher Laursen
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of British Columbia

Image: Envelope addressed to Mr. James Herrmann, Haunted House Victim. Box 529, Parapsychology Laboratory Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Used with permission.

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