Preserving Our Heritage and History

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We often take libraries and museums for granted, thinking them permanent fixtures, places for tourists to visit, or grad students to research. But as recent economic concerns stretch across the world, collections vital to understanding our place in history become jeopardized as funding is cut. Such is the case with the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, based at the University of London.

“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 … 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.”

If this collection were to be broken up and sold, it would be a huge blow to scholarship concerning the roots and history of modern Pagan religion. The Harry Price library contains such works as the “Malleus maleficarum” (five different editions), correspondences with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, Reginald Scot’s “Discoverie of Witchcraft”, and a work by the astrologer Arcandam.

“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.”Christine Wise, head of special collections at Senate House Library

Students across England are now lobbying their colleges to donate funds towards keeping the collection together, but things aren’t looking bright. A report is to be issued in November that will survey the extent of necessary cuts, and if the library will need to be sold off.

So what is the answer to this problem? It seems unlikely that the governments and universities funding these collections will suddenly rearrange their priorities concerning early esoteric texts and papers. Nor is England the only place where this problem is emerging. Is digitizing these artifacts the answer? That seems to be a growing consensus. Several works from the Victorian era in the Harry Price collection have been digitized, and the National Library of Ireland has recently digitized a rare book of occult correspondence between poet (and former Golden Dawn member) William Butler Yeats and Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne.

“Bound in white vellum, the notebook served as their metaphysical marital bed. Yeats used it to keep track of their shared fixation with the occult and each other … Now, a century later, that book is on display at the National Library of Ireland, opened to a page that is just barely visible under the indirect lighting prescribed for aged ink treasures. Yet every syllable – every comma-deprived sentence, every curve in her script, every ampersand – is legible. Next to the display case the entire notebook has been digitally reincarnated…”

Of course digital media, if housed in a single place, can be destroyed too, which would make the next step of digitial preservation to disperse thousands of copies to servers at libraries and universities across the world. Something I don’t see institutions like the National Library of Ireland doing any time soon. In the meantime, we shouldn’t allow the existing hard copies of rare and unique works to disperse into the homes of rich collectors, denying scholars and students easy access, forcing them to accede to the wishes of private individuals (or private trusts). We need to preserve our heritage and history for future generations despite the fiscal inconveniences, lest those tests, letters, and objects become little more than matters of conjecture and we lose an important physical link to our past.