I love a good spooky story.
This hasn’t always been the case. Until my college years, I was afraid of my own shadow. However, I now indulge in creepy podcasts and horror flicks, even if it means that from time to time I avoid the stairway in my apartment at night. My former housemate Pete (another librarian) has told me before that he could tell when I’d overindulged on Spooky Content when he woke up to find the hall light still on. As a catalogue-minded person, I’ve recently become interested in looking into the way that libraries curate and manage this genre. Which shelves do books about the paranormal live on? Is there a difference between a book on Marian apparitions and one on Bigfoot sightings? Do these materials even belong in libraries? Well, yes.
“But Maggie,” you may be saying to your screen, “we can’t prove that Marian apparitions OR Bigfoot even exist!”
Well … yes. We can’t prove whether or not the paranormal is real. But that doesn’t mean the information is entirely “bad” or otherwise worthless. If nothing else, studying the paranormal and those who investigate it can provide insight into the way people interact with and process the unknown. Take, for example, the well known EVP “Did you hear that?” moment: Ghost Adventures‘ Zak Bagans lets the viewers at home know that they should have heard something in that scratchy nothingness by repeating the sound over and over again with words layered over the scene until we hear what he wants us to hear. On the surface it seems, well, silly, quite frankly. A scare tactic. However, this method is actually linked directly to the way we process information. Research has shown that along with psychological pareidolic predispositions brought on by religiosity and/or generalized Mulder-ness (Riekki et al., Nees & Phillips) and the presence of evolutionary hyper-active agency detection devices (Guthrie, Barrett, Barrett & Lanman, van Elk), this type of cognitive priming heavily influences the ways that EVPs are understood by listeners (Buckner V & Buckner) by manipulating the biological processing of sound through the verbal-transformation effect (Warren, Natsoulas, Nees & Phillips). Behind the scenes: real science.
But I digress. Libraries. There are certainly big-name libraries that can be used as models for paranormal curation. The Senate House Library houses relics of psychic and paranormal researchers, occultists, and spiritualists. Documents from the CIA’s Stargate Project can all be accessed (with redactions) online. The Library of Congress American Folklife Center online repository includes recordings in which unnamed interviewees recount their interactions with ghostly apparitions. Smaller name, specialized groups like the Scientific Anomaly Institute in Austin, Texas have their own libraries that house collections with materials covering topics like Fortean Phenomena, “human potential”, and cryptozoology. EVPs themselves are frequently archived in public internet platforms, where paranormal investigators create YouTube channels such as H.O.P.E. Paranormal White Light and personal websites such as EVP Voices to catalogue and share their own evidence in what are essentially non-traditional libraries.
This is information that, while not taken very seriously by many (particularly in fields so closely tied to academia as ours), has merits. In the study of the paranormal, we aren’t only exploring what may or may not be beyond us. We are exploring the way people in the here and now think. By curating the paranormal, perhaps we can open our doors just a bit wider.
This article was adapted by Maggie McAlister from her paper ‘Electronic Voice Phenomena, Paranormal Investigations, & Sociotechnical Approach’, submitted to Dr. Lai Ma for the module Foundations of Information Studies. Maggie is currently working on her childhood dream of being a cryptozoologist while being happily employed as a cataloging librarian. You can follow and/or contact her on Twitter @librarian_maggs.
Here are the citations for the linked articles that may be barred because of paywalls:
Barrett, J. L. (2000). Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(1), 29-34. doi: 10.1016/S1364-6613(99)01419-9
Barrett, J. L., & Lanman, J. A. (2008) The science of religious beliefs. Religion, 38(2), 109-124. doi: 10.1016/j.religion.2008.01.007
Buckner V., J. E., & Buckner, R. A. (2012). Talking to the dead, listening to yourself: An empirical study on the psychological aspects of interpreting electronic voice phenomena. Skeptic Magazine, 17(2), 44-49.
Guthrie, S. (1980, April). A cognitive theory of religion. Current Anthropology, 21(2), 181-203. doi: 10.1086/202429
Natsoulas, T. (1965). A study of the verbal-transformation effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 78(2), 257-263.
Nees, M. A. & Phillips, C. (2015). Auditory pareidolia: Effects of contextual priming on perceptions of purportedly paranormal and ambiguous auditory stimuli. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 129-134. doi: 10.1002/acp.3086
Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., Aleneff, M. Halme, A., & Nuortimo, A. (2013). Paranormal and religious believers are more prone to illusory face perception than skeptics and non-believers. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 150-155. doi: 10.1002/acp.2874
van Elk, M. (2013). Paranormal believers are more prone to illusory agency detection than skeptics. Consciousness and Cognition, 22, 1041-1046. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2013.07.004
Warren, R. M. (1961). Illusory changes of distinct speech upon repetition – the verbal transformation effect. British Journal of Psychology, 52, 249-258. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1961.tb00787.x