A magic library sounds like something straight out of a movie, so it may surprise you to find out that one just so happens to exist in New York City (then again, where else would it exist). Located on a nondescript block in midtown Manhattan, the evocatively named Conjuring Arts Research Center is a nerdy dream come true.
The Center, founded in 2003, bill itself as "a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of magic and its allied arts, which include psychic phenomenon, hypnosis, deceptive gambling, science and history of playing cards, mentalism, ventriloquism, juggling, and sleight of hand techniques," which makes for a lengthy mission statement. That's a whole lot of magic, and fittingly, this library has way more to offer than just books.
The library itself is a cozy space, lined with shelves and old illustrated posters. There's even an adorable dog (the executive director's) roaming the halls. The Center isn't open to the public, and is open to researchers by appointment only. SYFY WIRE visited and spoke with librarians Sean Rockoff and Olena Zozulevich about the ins and outs of working at one of the most unique libraries around.
"It mostly has nothing to do with magic itself. It's librarian work," says Rockoff. Neither Rockoff nor Zozulevich are magicians themselves, and while magicians use the Center for research, practicing magic is not a prerequisite for taking an interest in this quirky collection. Given the Center's specialized focus, it doesn't get as much traffic as a more general collection might. On a typical week, one or two researchers visit the library. Most are historians, but Rockoff and Zozulevich say they deal with a variety of visitors looking to supplement their work with magic-related resources.
The library's original inception, Rockoff explains, arose from a personal mission. The founder, writer and magician Bill Kalush was working on a book about Houdini and was frustrated in his attempts to do library research. Initially unable to find the sources he was looking for, he decided to amass his own collection and pulled together so much material that he needed to organize it so he could do the research properly. This labor of love led to the establishment of the Center and the building of their extensive online database, Ask Alexander.
The Center's closest rival, content-wise — the Durmstrang to its Hogwarts — is a far more private one belonging to one of the world's most famous magicians, David Copperfield.
At the Center, researchers find "centralized material… there's a lot that's not going to be at other libraries," says Zozulevich.
"A lot of what we have might not be considered rare but are things that wouldn't generally get collected," Rockoff adds. "I'm always astounded by how many periodicals devoted to magic there have been," he quips, alluding to the Center's extensive collection of zines and other ephemera. The rare items in the Center's collection paint a fascinating picture, as there are books dating back to the 17th century and earlier, Sasanian coins from 2nd to 3rd century, and plenty of other oddities.
In such a library, so filled with material that hints at the supernatural, one practically expects to be greeted by Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, magicians rely on sleight of hand and psychological techniques to fool their audiences, and while the Center has a small collection of books on the occult, "The point of that is basically to disprove it," says Rockoff.
So, does working in a magic library end up teaching a librarian all the secrets of the great magicians? Well, sort of. "There are a lot of tricks that are ruined for me now, not because I know how they're done but because I know the principles behind them so I can sometimes see what the magician is doing without actually looking for it," Rockoff explains.
The librarian's knowledge of the subject was once given something of a real-life test.
"I was at a Penn & Teller performance and there were a couple of things that no one would've noticed, but I was in the right spot to see something that I knew had to be happening," he says. But, a magician never reveals his tricks, and neither does a magic librarian. "I'm not going to say what it was. All I could do was admire the skill, because what they did looked totally impossible."
The Center deals in both magicians' personal lives and their performances. There's a huge collection of correspondence, with material acquired through donations and estate sales. As Rockoff puts it, "Magic has been going on a long time and magicians are dying left and right." Magic tricks are fleeting and precise, and could easily be lost to time, but the Conjuring Arts Research Center has done impressive work in keeping this from happening. The library may be filled with illusions, but the day-to-day of cataloging, digitization, and reference work is undeniably real.