Snow & Inaccessibility

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.


Snow 2

Snow 3

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.

Snow 7

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.


20 responses to “Snow & Inaccessibility

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Wow, what a bummer – Salem archives moved to Rowley! You anticipated this in earlier posts. Maybe I missed it, but what will that lovely Phillips Building be used for? Don’t tell me for office space for PEM across the street.

    Thanks for keeping us informed on this happening. And Merry Christmas anyway…

  • Tim

    I appreciate the historic preservation effort but put the staff in an office building and use the restored historic buildings as part of the M U S E U M. And the Salem records really should be in a secure, safe, accessible location in Salem. Perhaps the PEM could move some larger display exhibits to Rowley to free up space; the Smithsonian does this with the Air & Space collection.

  • Susan Milstein

    I too would like to add my voice to those protesting moving the library & archives permanently to Rowley. I’ve lived in Salem only a short time, but I was advised that I could research my house at the PEM library since material on it is scarce. I know a number of people who live in Salem, who either do not drive, or would be unlikely to drive to Rowley to use the library. I believe that the PEM has an obligation to maintain a library & archival presence in Salem for both residents, and researchers. If PEM is unwilling to do this, then I feel that they should offer the library to SSU, or another local institution willing to take it.

    As a librarian, I can tell you that digitizing material requires either a great deal of money to have it done off-site, or excellent equipment & staffing to do it on-site in Salem. The PEM should have begun a program to digitize some of their treasures years ago if they planned to shut the library & move the contents off-site.

    Please let me know what I can do to help, if it’s not too late.

  • Deborah Prentice

    Hey, now! How about a Rowley trowlley? Oops, trolley. Not to make light, I am outraged as well.

    At the HC meeting, they told us that they have the upper two floors of the armory available. However, it would take 2-3 years to vacate museum collections from that space because it all needs to be (re)packed. (How did that happen? You had one job…) I’m not buying that timeline. Get a good conservator in there (if PEM isn’t up to the job), box it and move it.

    I asked if that space could be used for office and meeting space they so claim to need. Well, yes. Yes, it could.

    Or! They could put office and meeting space in Rowley! 112,400 SF of room up there. Make that $7,000,000 purchase pay off!

  • Dick Bevins

    Please continue to bang the drum, Donna!
    Do you know if the email addresses of individual trustees are available anywhere? I haven’s served on a board in years, but when I did, email sent to me by an aggrieved party always got my attention. Sometimes I even forwarded it to other board members and to the director.
    (If board members’ private email addresses are not publicly available, perhaps someone knows a friendly mole on the PEM staff who would quietly provide them.)

  • downeastdilettante

    There is such an ill wind blowing through Cultural Institutions right now. So many seem to be on a misguided path (I won’t list the examples here). As it happens, I signed a book contract in 2011, the year this all began to fall apart. I needed some Rantoul materials from Phillips, which was closing. It was easily one of the top three worst research experiences I’ve ever had, bar none, out of hundreds, and it was clear there was a bad culture brewing there. And no, I never got the materials, which are lost in cataloging, though they no doubt exist, misfiled somewhere in the greater colection. It was shocking.

  • Carol Hedstrom

    Donna, the Public Charities Division of the AG’s office is responsible for the oversight of public charities in MA. PEM is a registered public charity and is required to file annual reports.

    On the website you will see the following description of the role of the Public Charities Division: These organizations operate solely for the benefit of the public, and the Attorney General’s Office is responsible for protecting the public’s interest in their activities. The Attorney General’s Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division oversees organizations that are both not-for-profit and charitable. These range in size and complexity from our largest universities and health care systems to small, neighborhood-based social service organization and youth sport leagues.

    Carol Dupont Hedstrom

  • Laura G

    This is an important issue and I am absolutely sure communities everywhere concerned about their libraries and historical heritage can learn from this, so it’s good to “see red” and I will glad to read and follow it, with the greatest hope that you and others can change some minds!

  • Nanny Osborne Almquist

    I was so heartened to see the photos of the protesters and just wish I could have been there with them. I am going to finally signup for Facebook after strenuously avoiding it for years just so I can join your Facebook page on this issue.

  • Clyde

    This is indeed horrible news. How many hours drive away is Rowley from Salem? Does the train even go there?

  • Glenn McDonald

    Mein Gott!

    What benefits to Salem researchers, or the public at large accrue to this (adjective witheld) decision?

  • Larry Cole

    As a point of comparison: The main storage area of the National Archives is located a similar distance from the historic Archives building on the National Mall BUT there is public transportation between the two facilities; the cost of locating 1.8 million square feet of storage space in downtown Washington, DC would be far more costly than where Archives II was built (my guess is that the cost differential between Rowley and Salem – or at least closer to Salem – would not be as great); AND the National Archives is by definition a national facility and is less location-dependent, as opposed to the more local focus of Salem’s archives.

  • Joyce DeFeo

    I have been waiting for the Phillips Library to reopen to do genealogy research. While I enjoyed a short trip to Salem two years ago I found very little new info and now will have no reason to make Salem a destination .Who makes the decision as to who is allowed admittance? Would I as a non-professional researcher be allowed access? If they are not going to make these collections accessible at least insist that major funds are spent digitizing these important collections -I’m sure major donors would not want the money spent on office space! How many more YEARS do we have to wait? And what about the city’s administration? Are they blind to this aspect of the city’s appeal-historical heritage tourism?Sadly, I guess they only care about Halloween.

    phillips library

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