Choice vs. Necessity

Last night’s public forum in the atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum, in which the museum leadership presented their arguments for why the Phillips Library collections “must” go to Rowley and a large crowd thrust and parried in opposition, was dramatic, to say the least. I’m going to try to present a relatively objective summary here, but given my bias, I will probably fail. Nevertheless I haven’t quite figured out what went on last night, so I need to process it a bit, and this is how I process. Essentially Museum CEO Dan Monroe, who offered no apologies for the disrespectful and reluctant admission of the Rowley relocation just a month ago, presented a rather straightforward point of view, with very few nuances, that the Phillips collections “must” be housed in Rowley, along with all of the physical objects not on display, because there is no room for them in Salem. Regarding the library collections, this necessity flows from the fact that the “stacks”/vault addition to one of the existing Phillips buildings is “impossible” (definitely Mr. Monroe’s favorite word of the evening) for storage and “habitation”. There was no serious discussion of rebuilding the stacks addition, or of utilizing the Armory building next door: both are “impossible” so it is absolutely necessary that the library go to Rowley. The conflation of the Library materials and the physical collections overemphasizes the “impossibility” of keeping the former in Salem. Mr. Monroe and his colleagues were also very consistent in their assertions that preservation is their most important priority, and must trump accessibility and location. This is a very effective argument, as no one could possibly want to see these important materials rotting away (or under water, as one supporter of the museum argued vehemently–drawing attention to Salem’s vulnerable coastline but not to the fact that all of the PEM’s buildings, including the one it is building now, are in the path of this inevitable destruction).

PEM Forum Mr. Monroe at the PEM forum last night.

There were some very positive things about the forum: the large and diverse crowd, of which most, but not all, seemed to be in opposition to the Phillips-removal plan, the attendance of Salem’s mayor, state representative and state senator, all of whom stayed for the entire long evening, and several substantive and passionate comments. I’m grateful that the PEM even hosted the forum: they didn’t have to (or maybe they did for public relations purposes). But I saw or heard no dialogue; disconnect instead ruled the night. From my perspective, the disconnect stemmed from the fact that the Museum is currently in the midst of a 200 million expansion plan funded by a 650 million “advancement” campaign, so it seemed quite obvious that they were choosing the Rowley path rather than resorting to it out of necessity. They have the means to tear down that defunt stacks addition and start fresh: they just don’t want to. There were various attempts by the crowd to extract an admission of this choice by Mr. Monroe and his colleagues, with no success. The other source of disconnect related to the important issue of accessibility, both physical and digital. Mr. Monroe focused almost exclusively on the former, and asserted that Salem residents must sacrifice “convenience” for preservation several times; he would not accept any responsibility for the PEM’s glacial pace of digitization (a perfect word I am stealing from the tweet of a very prominent early Americanist) because digitization is “very, very expensive”—again, this coming from the CEO of an institution that has raised 650 million dollars over the last few years. There was a third source of disconnect that I can’t quite articulate yet—but will try to in my next post (I know I promised I would move on and away from the Phillips–but I just can’t yet, sorry). We did hear confirmation that the beautiful Phillips Library reading room will be open and accessible to the public at some point, but what will be in it I do not know. The new chief of collections and library director, John D. Childs, indicated that they were open to conversations about the “non-unique” (and presumably less vulnerable) items in the collections, so I am going to take some small measure of hope from this statement–but of course I want the unique items too!

PEM forum 2 The shuttered Phillips Library.

13 responses to “Choice vs. Necessity

  • Frances L Wilson

    Why can’t this man be replaced? Or impeached for acts of “treason” against Salem? I’m only partially sarcastic. Why is he (a non elected official) allowed to steal Salem’s history?

    • daseger

      Well, it’s complicated. The Library/Museum are private entities, for a start. There is a public trust there, but it’s hard to enforce. We have to convince them to do the right thing–and that the right thing is in their interest, which I truly believe it is.

  • Mike Pope

    If all is transfered to Rowley will it benefit the collection? Will the number and quality of items increase? More donations? Better admin aparatus, …any other tangeble benefit?

  • Margo Burns

    You wrote: “but what will be in it I do not know.” Oh, they told us! One of the slides from the presentation last night stated: “The Reading Room will include books, periodicals, and other materials that are relevant to Museum research and do not need climate-controlled conditions and library staff guidance.”

  • margoburns

    You wrote: “what will be in it I do not know.” They told us! One of the slides states the plan quite clearly: “The Reading Room will include books, periodicals, and other materials that are relevant to Museum research and do not need climate-controlled conditions and library staff guidance.”

    • daseger

      Well, but that’s what the working group is supposed to work on…..all Mr. Monroe really referred to was the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute (or whatever–he didn’t have the title of that illustrious publication, which ended with his appointment).

  • Rick Dodge

    …yes. time to process it all. or digest the pill ! The more the evening went on I started more and more to believe it is a money thing firstly and a commitment thing secondly. I get very skeptical over all the talk of archival preservation as the only reason for the move. Other organizations deal with the same issues all the time, with much better access to collections. I was glad to hear of PEM putting into the record their future usage plans for the wonderful interiors of Deland/Plummer. A bit surprised that rare and unique material from Rowley might not make it down the highway even for exhibits in the buildings ( which presumably will be climate controlled) The idea of a shuttle bus on a weekly schedule was floated… goes on of course. Turnout was special to say the least…saw Donald Friary ( he spoke with notes facing the crowd ) good man who directed Historic Deerfield. Gigi was beyond major drama…! Have to run….still more to process..!!

  • Susan Milstein

    I also attended the meeting last night. I was impressed with the turnout, but dismayed that a few speakers took up far more than the allotted two minute time limit.

    As a librarian I too wanted to ask why they couldn’t rebuild the stacks in the same location with proper climate control. The most fragile & unique materials, which may still be housed in Rowley could be digitized for access to all. This would also hold for the 30% of unique materials which Monroe mentioned more than once. Currently the amount of digital material and finding aids available to the public is abysmal considering this is a world class institution. There are cooperative programs for digitizing material, and the possibility of grants from the NEA/NEH for some of the most important historical collections.

    I also agree that no reason was given as to why the library and the objects storage and conservation center have to be housed together. Or why there is absolutely no location in Salem proper to house a reading room.

    At Harvard University, some of the library & special collection material is stored off-site at the Harvard Depository. There is a courier service that can retrieve the material usually within 24 hours. Will PEM offer such a service to researchers?

    • daseger

      Great questions, Susan! I would like to hear from as many librarians as possible! And just as an aside (well not really): they HAVE received considerable NEH funds for collections processing—even for collections that would up behind a pay wall.

  • anonymous revolted

    “…because digitization is “very, very expensive”—again, this coming from the CEO of an institution that has raised 650 million dollars over the last few years.”
    Well, well, well, management is a tough job everywhere. You need to have ideas and work hard to see them becoming reality…and all at a minimum cost.
    There are many entities that digitalize data but yo have to talk to them and do the foot work. One of them is:

    • daseger

      I think you need a plan too. I just don’t understand the reluctance to digitize given their resources, but the new library director seems more intent, so maybe that will change.

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