As frustrating as this past month has been with the prospect of Salem’s history being extracted by the relocation of the Phillips Library it has also been interesting, as I dove into the depths of its catalog so that I could develop a full appreciation of what we will be losing. I’m not an American historian so it was never an essential repository for me, and the life of this blog roughly corresponds with its closure. When I first moved to Salem I would research house histories and a few other things at the Phillips, but I was never truly aware of how rich and vast its collections were until just this past month: now I am awed. And as I discover and rediscover these holdings, I keep coming up with questions about their utility and accessibility: the slow process of digitization at the PEM remains confounding, but now I’m wondering if there is even an institutional interest in these materials. There is no question in my mind that the PEM is a responsible caretaker of its Phillips collections, but is there, or will there ever be, any enthusiasm for their interpretation? Historical records are not preserved merely for the sake of mothballing: they need to come alive through ongoing interpretation and curation. According to their messaging, the PEM hopes to attract scholars to its “state-of-the-art Collections Center” in Rowley via its digitized catalog, but does it have any interest in curating its own collections? We all thought that the last library exhibition, 2011’s Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM, was meant to tide us over until the reopening of the Phillips in 2013, but perhaps it was indeed the last library exhibition.
Libraries comparable to the Phillips, as well as those with far less resources, have presented wonderful exhibitions over the past few years, both online and in their reading rooms. In lieu of the lists of books which I usually produce at this time of the year, I thought I’d list some library exhibitions from the recent past and present, set forth for the purposes of comparison and perhaps inspiration.
John Carter Brown Library, Global Americana: The Wider Worlds of a Singular Collection (2017). Given the PEM’s global interests and the nature of their collections, a similar exhibition would be easily within reach, really popular, and a great teaching resource. We’re applying for an NEH grant on the trade between Salem and Spain at SSU, so this particular exhibit item, in which a very young nation assesses its trade, caught my eye—but it’s probably the least colorful item in the exhibition.
American Antiquarian Society, Louis Prang and Chromolithography. Artist, Innovator, and Collaborator (2015). This exhibition–archived online–features several works by Salem-born artist Fidelia Bridges. The PEM has some great lithographic images, including an amazing Prang process proof that was featured in Unbound—it was really the highlight of the highlights.
Harvard University Map Collection, Pusey Library, Look but Don’t Touch: Tactile Illusions in Maps. Everyone loves maps, and the PEM has a great collection, especially of local maps. A chorographical exhibition would be very interesting, but perhaps a bit too local for the cosmopolitan PEM.
Delaware Art Museum, The Cover Sells the Book: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920 (2017). A wonderful exhibition of notable bookbindings in the collection of the Museum’s Helen Sloan Farr Library & Archives. Thanks to the Phillips librarians’ tweets, pins, and instagram posts, we know that they preside over a treasure chest of beautiful bookbindings, and could easily mount a similar exhibition (or three or four).
Baker Library, Harvard University Business School, The Art of American Advertising, 1865-1910 (ongoing). This digital exhibition of American advertising ephemera is an amazing resource that I visit often. Given the Essex Institute’s all-encompassing policy of collecting old bills, letters, and account books, books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, directories, etc…in fact, all articles which now or in the future may throw light on our history, or manners and customs”, there is no shortage of similar materials in the Phillips Library.
And finally, photography, and a plea. The Phillips collections include the photographs and papers of two local photographers who established national reputations over their careers: Frank Cousins (1851-1925) and Samuel V. Chamberlain (1895-1975). While many of their photographs were published over their lifetimes and after, others remain entombed in the Phillips. Photography lends itself to digital exhibition particularly, so I’m really hoping that the PEM can release some of these images in that (or any!) form, forever.