From my perspective, there are two digitization dilemmas inherent in the Peabody Essex Museum’s plan to relocate the Phillips Library outside of Salem, where it was created over a period of 200+ years. The first is my own dilemma: if the PEM had actually made digitization an institutional priority, I certainly would have much less of a leg to stand on (or no leg at all) in my argument that the Library should remain in Salem. The second is theirs: if they had engaged in digitization equal to that of their peer institutions across the country and globe, or even comparable, their relocation–especially as it comes with promises of increased access– would be more palatable. One thing that the public debate over the relocation has made crystal clear is the fact that despite some confusing messaging, the PEM has actually only digitized the catalog of the Phillips collections, and a few additional items, pictured below.
Compare the PEM’s online holdings to those of an institution with similar historical materials, the Massachusetts Historical Society, or another regional institution, the Boston Athenaeum.
This scant list is not completely representative of Phillips materials online: in partnership, the PEM has enabled more of its collection to be accessible, chiefly with the Congregational Library & Archives and Adam Matthew, a British-based digital publisher of primary source databases for teaching and research. Where there is a partner, there is a way. The materials at the Congregational Library site, including witch trial records digitized previously by the University of Virginia and other records digitized as part of a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, are open access, but the materials at Adam Matthew are solidly behind a paywall. This is really unfortunate, because these are truly important Salem sources which constitute part of Adam Matthew’s China, America, and the Pacific database and the entirety of its module on Meiji Japan.
Both are wonderful thematic databases, expertly curated, and likely very dear—I wasn’t able to obtain exact pricing information. We don’t have these Adam Matthew products at Salem State, but I was able to get trial access to both databases for the month of January and I dove in. It’s wonderful to have so many Morse materials assembled in one place: Morse was an extraordinary intellectual and person, by all accounts: a naturalist, ethnologist, and director of one of the PEM’s foundation institutions, the Peabody Museum of Science, from 1880 until his death in Salem in 1925. (There’s a wonderful story of Morse’s young colleagues running through and around the Great Salem Fire of 1914 to their mentor’s house on Linden Street, only to find Morse ensconced in his living room, calmly playing a flute). Meiji Japan includes materials drawn from the Phillips’ 55 boxes of Morse papers, including Morse’s famous Japan diaries, correspondence (including letters to and from his colleague Ernest Fenollosa, the Salem-born Japanese Imperial Minister of Fine Arts, whose childhood home is right next door to ours), scrapbooks, and scholarly works. There is a note in the Phillips catalog that This digital resource is available to researchers on Phillips Library computers so I guess we can all troop up to Rowley to see the works of this long-time Salem resident, or perhaps there will be a desktop in Plummer Hall.
The very interesting house of Edward Sylvester Morse on Linden Street in Salem; the Account Book of the Thomas Perkins of Salem (pictured above from the Essex Institute’s Old-Time Ships of Salem, 1922) is included in Adam Matthew’s China, America, and Pacific database.
Morse is amazing, but I found the China, America, and the Pacific collection captivating, as its sources have been even less accessible and are extremely relevant to, and illustrative of, historiographical trends in world history. My trial is rapidly coming to an end with this database, but we have one at the Salem State University Library for the next month or so, so you can go and see for yourself. Records of several major Salem merchants, including Benjamin Shreve, Samuel Barton, Joseph Peabody, Benjamin Crowninshield, Joseph Bowditch, and Nathaniel Kinsman, are included, encompassing account and log books for myriad Salem ships, including Minerva, the first Salem ship to circumnavigate the globe, Canton, New Hazard, China, Comet, Catherine, Bengal, Mount Vernon, and more. These materials don’t just record trade, they decipher relationships for us, as in the account book of the Minerva’s 1809 voyage to Canton, in which “the captain and his clerk have added detailed remarks about the Canton System and the Hong Kong merchants who they met”. This particular Adam Matthew “product” would be wonderful for my students, and I wish SSU could purchase it, but funds are limited and demands great for all library materials at my public university, just as they are at all public institutions. It seems more than a bit ironic then, that so many of the Phillips materials (including the Tucker, Kinsman, Barton, Shreve, Bowditch and Peabody papers) which are included in the China, America, and the Pacific database were, in fact, processed with public funds from either the National Endowment of the Humanities or the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
I want to be very precise in my presentation of facts as PEM CEO Mr. Dan Monroe has recently complained that those of us who have “virulently criticized” the removal of the Phillips Library from Salem have been “constantly presenting false information to the public”: the PEM has licensed historical materials donated by Salem families and processed with Federal funds to a commercial academic database, and if I want my Salem students to be able to access these materials (after our trial run is over) we will have to pay for the privilege.