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Researching the Paranormal, by Courtney M. Block

Cover of Researching the Paranormal
Publication Details: 
Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN: 9781538131442.
Publish date: 
June, 2020

Reviewed by Christopher Josiffe

The author is a reference and user engagement librarian at Indiana University Southeast, and, as someone with a long-standing interest in the paranormal (she has herself experienced some inexplicable phenomena, described in the introduction) is ostensibly a suitable person to write a book of this type. One of the skills that a good reference and enquiry librarian seeks to pass on is, as the book’s sub-heading suggests, an ability to locate and identify trustworthy sources of information. The Internet-driven proliferation of dubious or factually incorrect material – the paranormal being a subject area particularly susceptible to ‘fake news’ – means that a guide such as this one is surely needed.

Unfortunately, the author’s publishers appear to have let her down in terms of a lack of editorial intervention; the book is oddly structured and disorganized. It is also not clear who this book is aimed at. At times its readership appears to be a non-academic one. One section in chapter three discusses best practices when conducting a vigil in a haunted house (ensure one’s camera has a time stamp, keep a list of all investigators present, adhere to a rota for who is to observe which area and at what time) so would appear to be aimed at ghost hunters. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it is somewhat incongruous given the book’s stated aim to “serve as a bibliographic guide to researching the paranormal”.

Elsewhere, this book points the researcher towards databases and other library resources that are primarily available to university staff and students – Gale Primary Sources, digitized New York Times back issues, the MLA International Bibliography, and others, suggesting (as per the author’s day job) that she is writing for undergraduates who are researching papers on the paranormal. There are other hints to this effect: “you may have noticed that I used the phrase ‘primary and secondary research’. Some readers may know the difference between the two, and I’d be willing to bet that any readers currently in college have heard their professors describe these in class” (p. 71).

This impression, that her book is aimed at undergraduate level, is given support by other material in the first chapter; an attempt to define the term ‘paranormal’ and an overview of what she regards as the subject’s major areas of interest (ghosts and hauntings, UFOs, parapsychology, NDEs and reincarnation, cryptozoology, divination, occult and magical practices; a fairly wide spectrum, such that one fears it is to be too broad to be given adequate coverage in a single book). The second chapter’s history of paranormal research and of its leading figures is a further indication that the book’s intended audience is an undergraduate one. That the list of resources are mostly to be found in academic libraries does not, as the author correctly states, necessarily preclude people outside higher education from accessing them. It is not well known that very often, “the public can freely access the academic library” (p. 74) and consult its materials (whether in print or electronic form). This and similar pieces of advice situate the author as writing in her role as user engagement librarian. Widening engagement and participation are genuinely laudable aims, but again one wonders who is she writing for? Undergraduates or members of the public who are outside the ‘academy’? At times she appears to have written a user guide to a specific library’s resources; perhaps it started life in this form, and was subsequently expanded to become a full-length book. This ‘user engagement’ role is emphasised elsewhere on this same page; explaining the process by which members of the public may obtain a specific book from their local library via the inter-library loan scheme, local (presumably the same as ‘public’ in the UK) libraries are recommended as offering access to “qualified researchers who can not only help you research topics but will also help track down sources (does this mean ‘resources’?) that  they may not individually hold…” (p. 74).

The preface introduces the anthropological concept of liminality, as propounded by Arnold van Gennep (1977) and Victor Turner (1969), and refers to James Seale-Collazo’s (2012) interpretation of it as: “a particular category of social situation in which structural constraints upon individuals are loosened or released and hierarchies blurred or held in abeyance”. The author’s application of liminality to paranormal research leads her to suggest that materialistic science may be a hindrance to such research, but this is a curious suggestion, begging the question as to what sort of science might be more helpful instead of materialistic science? (The neopagan or Wiccan concept of unverified personal gnosis came to this reviewer’s mind; a personal encounter with a deity or spirit that cannot objectively be substantiated and whose content may be at odds with what is already known about the deity from folklore, ancient writings or archaeology).

The author also suggests that the concept of liminality has relevance for the study of the paranormal because “the mere act of researching paranormal topics is a liminal act because it challenges the academic status quo”, and on the basis that “it challenges the notion that all paranormal research is pseudoscience”. But the latter is also a curious statement, given that a section in chapter five headed ‘Universities Engaged in Paranormal Research’ lists several universities actively and openly engaged in study of the paranormal. She cites the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina, California’s Saybrook University, and the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Division of Perceptual Studies, founded by reincarnation researcher Dr Ian Stevenson. They describe themselves as “exclusively devoted to the investigation of phenomena that challenge mainstream scientific paradigms regarding the nature of the mind/brain relationship”. That these and other organisations listed here (the Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, based in North Carolina, the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation) are all based in the USA or Canada is a factor that appears repeatedly in this book. There are some (admittedly a few) UK university psychology faculties that support the academic study of, for example, ESP and near-death experiences, and some history and anthropology departments that offer courses or modules on the history or theory of magic and witchcraft. Perhaps this focus on the USA was inevitable, since the author herself is based in Indiana, but it does limit the value of the book as a guide to available resources for those who are not situated in the USA. Similarly, relevant museums and special collections she cites are US-based. Perhaps to mitigate this, the final chapter, titled ‘The UK’s Intimate History with the Paranormal’, offers “an overview of paranormal collections, hotspots, magical practices, and paranormal inquiry in the United Kingdom”. Again, the scope here is too wide to be covered adequately in a chapter.

As a fellow librarian, this reviewer was surprised by the author’s advice to be as specific as possible when trying to locate relevant books in a subject area. This is in direct opposition to the advice this reviewer – in his role as a university librarian who sometimes staffs an enquiry desk – would give. If a student, whether at undergraduate, masters or PhD level, wishes to conduct a literature review, the technique I have been taught is to start with a wide search and gradually narrow down the results (a strategy that I demonstrate to students and one that I employ myself when researching an article or book). In this sense, I see nothing wrong in starting with Google (or Google Scholar, depending on the subject – I would not expect many Google Scholar results if searching for articles on Skinwalker Ranch, for instance). One can also check citation indexing databases such as Web of Science to see how many times an article has been referenced by others – of course this tends only to work with academic, peer review material.

The example offered by the author is that of a reader wishing to learn whether their local library holds Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the variant US title for the first in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series). In this scenario, “I wouldn’t search for ‘wizards’ and just hope for the best. Think specific first” (p. 75). Clearly, this strategy will work if one is seeking a specific book. But if one is attempting to conduct a literature review using a library catalogue, first of all, a broad sweep is arguably most advisable, one that will inevitably yield many irrelevant ‘hits’ which can then be filtered out. Then one begins to narrow down the search from these initial results, and narrow them down still further. For example, one could exclude all material published before a certain date (perhaps one only wants material written in the last 10 or 20 years); one could specify a language (not all results will necessarily be for works in one’s preferred language); if seeking the more academic type of material, one may be able (in the case of monographs) to filter out books without bibliographies, indices and footnotes.

Also notable by its absence was any mention of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Library reference and enquiry staff often advise students to use LCSH in literature reviews and as a means to virtually browse the shelves. In the example above, if a student had been given an assignment to write about real-life historical sources for JK Rowling’s series, the catalogue record for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might have one or more LCSH assigned to it (admittedly, this is not always the case for novels – ‘Wizards’ perhaps. As a hyperlink, clicking on this will generate a list of all other catalogue entries that have been assigned with this LCSH. Another ‘virtual shelf browsing’ technique is, if the user search tool interface (the public face of the catalogue, in other words!) supports it, to browse by shelf mark.

But, again speaking as a fellow librarian, this reviewer does admires the author’s brave attempt at providing a practical guide to encourage further study of the subject, particularly by the younger generation, our future researchers. And there is a good deal here that may prove valuable – chapters seven to nine list numerous encyclopaedias, dictionaries, handbooks, monographs and journals (and also individual journal articles) all gathered under specific subjects – cryptozoology, near-death experiences, occult and magical practices… Some chapters, or sections of chapters, might usefully be separated and used on their own as library guides. And the bibliographical chapters could well be published separately, as a starting point for undergraduates and others.

The inclusion of journal articles as well as individual websites’ pages being cited (the book has a ten-page bibliography as well as footnotes at the end of each chapter), will, as has been observed elsewhere, present the difficulty that some of the material in this book is liable to become obsolete. This may be because some website pages may no longer exist in a few years’ time. Or that they still exist, but have been moved to another section of the website, so that the URL no longer functions. The references to individual journal articles is not such a problem (some articles become classics of their kind and never go out-of-date), but these can only be as up-to-date as the book’s publication date (2020), and since students are often encouraged to consult journal articles for the latest, cutting-edge research, this may also render the book dated and no longer up to speed.

Overall, one feels this project was too ambitious and, as such, has resulted in a confusing mass of material whose target audience is unclear.

van Gennep, A. (1977). The rites of passage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Original work published 1908.
Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Seale-Collazo, J. (2012). Charisma, liminality, and freedom: toward a theory of the everyday extraordinary. Anthropology of Consciousness, 23 (2), 175-191.

Christopher Josiffe is library cataloguer at University College London and news editor for Fortean Times.