Dear readers: I had a lovely plan for the blog this December, including light, frothy and festive posts about fairies, puddings, and GIN. But then the Peabody Essex Museum was forced to admit that they have no intention of returning the historical collections of the Phillips Library to Salem at a Historic Commission meeting on December 7, a day that shall forever live in infamy in Salem’s history—maybe. So now I am seeing a different kind of red than the holiday kind, and am going to have to process this development for some time, here and elsewhere. I’ve never lived in a time or place when a community’s heritage was so brazenly and cruelly threatened, and it’s pretty much all I can think about. Fair warning. I do feel a bit guilty about this, however, so I am going to intersperse my PEM post today, which addresses the issue of inaccessibility, with photographs of our first snow of the season. This will make for a rather incongruous presentation, but it’s the best I can offer at the moment.
A few little scenes from Satuday’s public protest against the relocation of the Phillips Library’s collection– essentially Salem’s archives–to a large conservation facility in Rowley.
There are so many issues to address regarding this relocation/removal, primarily because the Museum (and by “Museum”, I am always referring to the Museum leadership; many curators and staff are part of the Salem community while the leadership and vast majority of of trustees live elsewhere, consequently there is a deafness and a disconnect on the part of the latter) is very slippery, and changes its rationales according to necessity–or audience. At the December 7th meeting, Facilities Director Bob Monk seemed to stress the importance of office space, and because that meeting made news, Executive Director Dan Monroe was pressed to come out with a statement, at long last, on the following day, in which he emphasized the inability of the existing Phillips Buildings, Plummer Hall and the Daland House, to accommodate the collection under proper conditions. This inability has presented the museum with a “great” opportunity, according to Mr. Monroe: to unify the Museum’s renowned art and culture collection with the Phillips Library collection at new 112,000-square-foot Collections Center located in Rowley. This new center, which keeps the Library collection accessible in Essex County, will become operational by mid-2018 and will feature highly secure, climate-controlled space for storage for the collections and extremely handsome and functional spaces for a Library reading room, staff offices, conservation, and other operations. The Library will continue to welcome researchers from around the world and PEM’s skilled librarians will continue to assist patrons during the reading room’s public hours. Mr. Monroe addresses accessibility several other times in his statement, and Mr. Monk also referenced accessibility on the 7th: “Our goal here is, really, to make the collections actually more accessible, not less”. Increasing accessibility is probably the one constant claim that the Museum has been making, since it shut down the Phillips Library in 2011 with promises to return in a few years. But they have not, and odds are that they will not.
A little snow intermission! Now back to work.
There are three types of accessibility relevant to this discussion: physical, demographic, and digital. Obviously Rowley (which is a lovely town by the way; I have nothing against it, I just don’t want Salem’s history to be located there) is distant from Salem and the PEM’s large warehouse will not be accessible by train or by foot, only by car. Nearly every single major independent research and/or museum library in the United States is located in an urban area reachable by mass transportation: the Phillips will be the first to be transferred in its entirety to a suburban satellite facility. Given its storied history which is so based on place, we can reasonably ask if the Phillips Library will simply cease to exist.
As to demographic accessibility, who are they going to let into their warehouse, their gated community? Monroe’s statement says “researchers”, which could include anyone and everyone: I guess we’ll find out at the public forum which was also announced in his statement on January 11 @ 6:00 at Morse Auditorium in the museum. The last issue I want to address is digital accessibility, because I think there are many misperceptions about this based on several articles dating from the time of the Phillips’ closure in 2011. Very little of the Phillips Collection has been digitized, surprisingly little for an institution which raised $650 million in its recent Advancement Campaign: less than 100 of their 2 million manuscript items are accessible online, with an emphasis on the trivial (ocean liner ephemera and vintage valentines). What has been digitized is much of their catalog: we know what treasures are contained in the collection, we just can’t access them.
NEXT UP: DONORS.