Magical library may vanish

Britain's largest collection on the supernatural may be broken up and sold

Richard Osley
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:15

A remarkable collection of rare and ancient volumes on the arts of magic and summoning ghosts could be broken up and sold off due to a funding crisis.

The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, based at the University of London, is the UK's largest of its kind and contains letters between Price and the legendary illusionist Houdini. It also has detailed correspondence between Price and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a believer in the paranormal. Titles such as The Hammer of Witches, a 1486 treatise on witchcraft, are among its 13,000 items, which include pamphlets and hand-pressed books as well as photographs.

The collection is under threat after the university's grant for its specialist library was slashed by more than 60 per cent by the Higher Education Funding Council. The £1m cut means the library could cease to exist. "The colleges are carrying out a review of what they're going to do," a university spokesman said. "Funding is an issue. We won't know what their findings are until they publish their report in November."

John Fielden, who heads Chems, the consultancy carrying out the review, admits that selling off collections including Price's is under consideration. Other options include splitting up the library to free up space for renting, or closing it down altogether.

Price, born in 1888, was a lifelong collector of literature on magic after becoming obsessed with the subject at the age of eight. His collection, which was bequeathed to the university on his death in 1948, has many rare volumes and is considered one of the most important in its field.

"I don't think people realise how important this collection is or how broad it is," said Price's most recent biographer, Richard Morris. "It contains a huge amount of social history from the early 17th century through to the mid-20th, and all under one roof. There is nothing like it in the entire world. It should be more highly valued by researchers, academics and social historians."

Christine Wise, head of special collections at Senate House Library, added: "The collection has a very wide interest. Some of the material about witchcraft is now very relevant to areas such as gender studies and how women have been portrayed over time."

Price wrote of his library: "Apart from its bibliographical and historical interest, the main purpose of the Research Library is to assist students in the investigation of alleged phenomenological happenings; to help them detect the psychic impostor and charlatan, and to enable them to recognise genuine phenomenon."

Students are lobbying their colleges for financial contributions. David Pearson, director of research library services at the University of London, said: "There's always a financial side to providing a service. We're very happy to provide it, but we can't do it for free."

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