The national discussion over Confederate war memorials is centered on the implicit question: who owns history? Often that is a question that is difficult to answer because in fact everyone owns history. Interpreted in a material way, however, it’s possible to be more literal: in terms of sources, for example, it is quite apparent that the Peabody Essex Museum owns Salem’s history. The PEM’s Phillips Library, the third largest museum library in the United States, is the largest repository of historical records of Salem and Essex County by far: its holdings encompass the papers and records of innumerable Salem families and organizations, the definitive collection of Hawthorniana, all sorts of records relating to Salem’s China Trade, including logbooks, customs records, merchant account books, hand-colored plates of ships, maps, and the Frederick Townsend Ward collection, one of the world’s largest collections of Western-language materials on Imperial China. The Library holds a million historic photographs, including rare nineteenth-century views of Asia, the archives of Edwin Hale Lincoln, Frank Cousins and Samuel Chamberlain, and the complete North American Indian portfolio of Edward S. Curtis. The Edward Sylvester Morse collection of Japanese language books is just one small part of a 400,000-volume collection which began in 1799. The physical size of the entire collection is best expressed by numbers: 5000 linear feet of manuscripts, over 1000 linear feet of archives, 3,000 linear feet of newspapers, 135 linear feet of ephemera and nearly 5000 reels of microforms. The bulk of this collection was compiled when the Phillips Library was part of the Essex Institute (established in 1848), which merged with the Peabody Museum to form the new Peabody Essex Museum in 1992. As part of a new, ever-expanding museum which privileges the global and the sensational over the local and the historical, the Phillips Library’s mission has clearly changed: to what I do not know. But more importantly, it has become increasingly restrictive and inaccessible, and absent: it was closed for renovations in 2011 and its collections were moved to a facility in Peabody and now it is moving on to another (temporary?) facility even further away, in Rowley. According to one succinct statement regarding this move, and supposedly to facilitate it, all access to collections will be suspended from September 1, 2017 through March 31, 2018.
Gentlemen in the Phillips c. 1885, and ladies outside Plummer Hall on Essex Street, which housed the Library for over a century; Logbook from the ship Horace, first decade of the 19th century. All images in this post (except those from the Essex Institute Historical Collections Volume 113, no. 3 below) are from the Library’s social media accounts: Twitter and Instagram. The Library’s wonderful blog, Conversant, has been shut down, but you can still see some of the images it featured on Pinterest.
The lingering detachment of the Phillips Library has been nothing short of tragic for Salem, as it long served, in purpose and in effect, as the city’s historical society. While other towns in Essex County developed historical societies and museums over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Salem did not, because it already had one: a vast repository of private (and public) records right in its midst. You can see–and read—Salem citizens engaging with the Essex Institute and the Phillips Library (with their history) in the pages of the long-running (and thankfully digitized) Essex Institute Historical Collections, which is full of recollections and memorials as well as historical analyses of materials in the Library’s collection. Given Salem’s dynamic past, the lack of an accessible and engaging repository of its heritage has resulted in historical interpretations that are entrepreneurial at best, and crassly commercial for the most part: is it any wonder that we have a statue to a television character in our central public square?
One of my very favorite volumes of the EIHC from July 1977: focused on a coincidental exhibition at the Essex Institute on the life and times of the Salem’s famous diarist, the Reverend William Bentley. It’s full of insights and images, including: a plan of South Salem Bridge and Lafayette Street, c. 1806, a certificate for the Salem Iron Factory, c. 1800, and a print and portrait of Salem printer Thomas C. Cushing, c. 1806 and 1816. Along with social media, these volumes might be our only avenue of access into the Phillips Library for a while…..
There are many curious, engaged and energetic people in Salem who clearly crave a closer, more introspective connection to the city’s complex past but I wonder how this can be achieved when we have so little access to our material heritage? That’s the big question, but I have so many more. Why haven’t more of the Library’s collections been digitized? That seemed to be the intent several years ago, but I only see a few digitized collections on the Museum’s website (volumes of The American Neptune, images of the Great Salem Fire, ocean liner ephemera, vintage valentines, the Winthrop family papers): this is a scant amount of material in relation to the Library’s entire collection and in comparison with the efforts of other comparable libraries. What about public records? The Phillips holds the major legal records of the Salem Witch Trials, the Essex County Court Archives, which were deposited at the Essex Institute by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1980, as well as the records of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County. These records have been transcribed, printed, and digitized (at the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project) but don’t we still have a legal right to access the actual documents? I would imagine that the representatives of all those Salem families and institutions (the Appletons, the Crowninshields, the Derbys, the Peabodys, the Active Fire Club, the Salem Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor, the Salem Female Charitable Society, the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association, the Salem Marine Society……I could go on and on and on…..) assumed that when they placed their records in the safe-keeping and under the stewardship of the Phillips Library that they would form part of a public archive for posterity: otherwise what is the point? And finally, I am thinking–and wondering–about my Americanist colleagues and how they’re going to conduct their research come tomorrow, when I will have more tools and materials at my disposal as an English historian here in Salem than they will.
More random treasures from the Phillips Library: a 1687 deed conveying Rumney Marsh to Colonel and Mrs. Paige; a reward of merit bestowed upon Elizabeth S. McKinstry; a plate from Robert Manwaring’s Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companions (1765); just two broadsides; George Peabody’s letterbooks; a Frank Cousins photograph of the entrance to the Andrew Safford House. These tweets and posts from @pemlibrary are lifelines!