Historic East End towns, centuries-old buildings and lichen-covered cemeteries are often home to tales of long dead souls connecting with the living in subtle or terrifying ways. Some revel in these stories while others turn and run. An even smaller handful of brave folks actually go out looking for such encounters at places like the Rogers Mansion in Southampton, Cutchogue’s notorious Wickham Farm House or the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor, among others. Fewer still seek something more than thrills or a good story to tell friends — they want answers, and one of the most likely places in all of North America to find those answers happens to be right here in the Village of Greenport.
Hidden in plain sight since 2005, when it moved from Manhattan and opened at 308 Front Street in the former North Fork whaling port, the Parapsychology Foundation’s Eileen J. Garrett Research Library houses one of the world’s most expansive collection of books, periodicals and audio-visual materials on psychical research and the paranormal.
Visitors will find more than 12,000 books on, but not limited to, ghosts, hauntings, psychic phenomena, spirituality, religion, mysticism, reincarnation, the occult, magic, psychedelics, quantum physics, dreaming, astral projection, healing, death and dying, ESP, exorcism, auras, faeries, hypnosis, prophecy, demonology, miracles and even skepticism.
The Eileen J. Garrett Research Library collection not only covers a stunning range of topics, it makes this wealth of knowledge and information available to readers of all levels, providing everything from dense academic tomes for the seasoned researcher, to more accessible writing that an uninitiated novice could follow and understand. Unfortunately, their landlord has listed the building for sale and the once thriving nonprofit Parapsychology Foundation has fallen on hard times financially.
This local treasure that once held annual conferences, offered grants and scholarships, and published brilliant pamphlets and books may, after 70 years of cutting-edge work, be shuttered for good.
“The foundation is nonprofit, really nonprofit,” Parapsychology Foundation president Lisette Coly jokes wryly, explaining that they first moved the library to Greenport — where she’s had a home for decades — when things became too expensive in Manhattan. Originally, she planned to keep the books in storage, but she happened upon the Front Street location and the rent was exactly the same as their warehouse space — so the mission continued.
“The foundation really serves two constituencies: academia, researchers around the world, but also the public at large,” Coly explains. As Parapsychology Foundation president since 2012 and, before that, executive director since 1999, Coly follows in the footsteps of her grandmother, famous psychic medium Eileen Garrett, who founded the organization in 1951, and her late mother, Eileen Coly, who succeeded Garrett as president when she died in 1970.
“The main mission of the Parapsychology Foundation back in ’51 was to act as a clearinghouse for information about a very misunderstood and very complex field that in ’51 very few people recognized and knew,” she adds. “Now, thanks to our friends in the media, everybody knows our buzzwords. You can’t turn on a television without some sort of a psychic plot or ghostbusters and this and that. My mother used to say that Eileen Garrett and she, in the early days, spent all their time explaining what parapsychology is, and I am stuck with trying to explain what parapsychology is not.”
Coly says, “parapsychology is interdisciplinary,” describing the field as applying scientific methodology to psychical research — basically trying to understand, for example, why people see ghosts, or how psychics speak with the dead. “We have a quantum physicist who thinks it’s quantum wave theory, or a biologist or a psychologist, or philosopher, so we wanted to have some volumes on the shelves that would allow people to make the jump to the paranormal. You can’t just swim in this without knowing where you’re coming from,” she says. “The foundation really wants to make this information and what we know about it accessible to all. People expect that since we’re titled the Parapsychology Foundation, that I’m here to convince you of all the phenomena, and we are not here (for that),” Coly continues, pointing out that the foundation does not have any “corporate opinions” about the various subjects illuminated in their stacks.
“Eileen Garrett, my maternal grandmother, herself a trance medium, caught a lot of flak because everybody thought if she was supposedly talking to spirits she would be a believer in survival, or life after death, and she was not sure,” Coly says, describing her grandmother’s healthy skepticism and desire for answers. “I tell people, a true believer in all this, to me, is just as dangerous as a true disbeliever. Because when you’re a skeptic and you reject everything, or you believe everything, well hello, I like to sit in the middle. … There are multiple possible explanations. I always say you have to eliminate all normal explanations before you jump to the paranormal, which people tend to not do. And the more you know, the more you don’t know.”
Whether in town for the day or a two-week stay via a university grant, library visitors often begin their research from this perspective, dusting off rare and unusual books from the shelves and following different lines of inquiry to prove or disprove a hypothesis, or simply see where the information takes them. The library is open by appointment and operates on a read-in basis, but the Parapsychology Foundation website and YouTube channel are loaded with excellent resources that can be viewed from anywhere with an internet connection.
“This particular library is arguably the top three in the world,” Coly says, noting that it’s only exceeded by the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) library at Cambridge University just north of London, and the University of Freiburg’s collection in Germany. “Then there’s the Garrett … which means that we’re the only one in the States of this size that’s open to the public.”
It also happens to be a rare organization run entirely by women for 70 years and three generations, passing from mother to daughter each time the leadership changed. Coly points out that the Parapsychology Foundation was originally funded by Ohio’s first female elected to Congress, Frances Payne Bolton. A Republican with a lifelong interest in parapsychology, Bolton was an instrumental part of bringing Garrett’s vision to life.
“These two ladies never understood that they were women and couldn’t do that,” Coly says. “They used to tell me, ‘Listen, dear, the difficult thing in life is to figure out what you want to do. Even if it seems impossible to get to it. Figure that out. That’s the hard part, and then you go about how to get from A to B.”
In 1951, Garrett and Bolton had grown tired of trying to find people who would fund research that they were interested in, so they decided to create their own foundation. “Mrs. Bolton endowed the foundation and we’ve been living off that money all these years,” Coly says, adding later, “We’ve been living off our endowment, and now it’s sort of come to the end of the road.”
If Coly isn’t able to somehow get the funding to bring the Parapsychology Foundation — and by extension the Garrett Library — back to its former glory, she wants to find a suitable home for the collection, where it can be available to the public and used for its intended purpose.
“We’re trying to find our feet again. … I’m very concerned about the future of the library. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to maintain it,” she says, noting that she and her daughter, Anastasia Damalas, are doing what they can. “I am canvasing different universities, like maybe Duke University or NYU, who knows? I even thought, maybe I’ll try to get to New York Public (Library)?”
For now, Coly is preparing for the worst while still hoping for an angel investor or some twist of fate that might steer their course away from what feels inevitable, and instead begin a new era in this noble effort to explain the previously unexplainable.
To learn more about the Parapsychology Foundation and the Eileen J. Garrett Library, and to donate, visit parapsychology.org.