The Digitization Dilemma

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.

Digital collageCompare 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. 

Digital database AM

Digital 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.

Digital Morse

Thomas PerkinsThe 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 Salem1922) 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.

19 responses to “The Digitization Dilemma

  • dccarletonjr

    Dear Donna:

    Another excellent post. Let us see what the NHPRC has to say about the materials licensed through Adam Matthew.

    Maybe the in-library terminal access was deemed sufficient in terms of public accessibility at the time the NHPRC funding was approved, but one has to wonder whether even that limited option can be considered operable in terms of the collecton’s current closure.

  • greenheron628


    John nailed the PEM/Phillips situation from a scholarly point of view.

    I’ve also had a close-up view of the ways museums have changed. My former husband was curator at a major Boston art museum at the time I was a grad student at the school attached to the MFA. Those museums then and now have undergone radical changes, are nearly unrecognizable versions of their former entities. Isabella Gardner’s will stipulated that any additions not exceed the square footage of her house. We know how well that went. I look out my office window now at the results: her house dwarfed by an addition two thirds larger in scale.

    The PEM is no different. When I moved here in 1990, PEM was a quaint, provincial museum that exhibited Chinese porcelain. After the merger, the mission changed to the establishment of a top tier world class art museum. Some residents may not understand what that means, or realize that it has already happened. Imagine MoMA or the Getty on the Essex walking mall, because that’s what we have now, done quietly, with a low profile and no transparency. Did anyone know about either of the new wings before they were announced? Were residents asked for their input, feedback, and suggestions?

    Top tier world class museums are juggernauts. They steamroll and they get what they want. They tend to have, um, colorful directors. Perhaps people remember how at one point during the Liberty Street broohaha, PEM threatened to pick up their big ball and go elsewhere. They showed no allegiance to Salem. It was a viable location, not their home. They’d begun to build their reputation here, but if the climate and politics weren’t conducive, they’d move their game. Salem offered a blank slate, no other museums, a mayor who sought to attract business and fill empty storefronts, residents who demanded a more vibrant attractive town. It happened. We have an exciting culture here now, which includes the arts. When I moved here there was no reason to go downtown at night, now there are too many. Word got out and people–many of them young–left Boston to move to Salem. Like the PEM, we’re becoming world class.

    All art museums have massive volumes of work in their collections, more than ever could be exhibited. Storage is a huge problem, finding the space, covering costs. The PEM is shedding the Phillips Library because it is viewed as a burden in the pursuit of their major art museum goals. In their view, local consternation and protest is an inevitable but acceptable consequence.

    Expect more decisions like this one. Their historic houses will be addressed similarly in the coming years. Once the new wing opens, our city will change in ways residents cannot now imagine. One can be certain that the mayor quietly nods her head to PEM’s decisions, as she did to this one. Her mission and theirs are the same.

    A public demand to digitize the collection, to make it freely available to all residents, is a realistic hope. The PEM is grossly behind other museums in this regard. For years I have been able to show my students jewels from the vast Harvard art collection at a click on my laptop, in high resolution, every single page of every one of John Singer Sargent’s sketchbooks. It’s infuriating for us and embarrassing for them to be in such museum digital dark ages. Focus and effort could be productive here, in ways that demands to keep the collection in Salem will not.

    I apologize that this runs long. I am not a member of Facebook. Publish or not, that’s fine. In stating a different point of view than my neighbors, some will see me as a disruptor, an enemy, as they did John Grimes, who spoke truth and reality. Change is hard. Loss is hard. This both.


    • dccarletonjr

      Suzanne offers a very astute analysis in terms of how the museum business has evolved in the past couple of decades, but her analysis misses a major point: PEM has obligations to the community which gave it life and in which it operates.

      Were it strictly an independent private actor, PEM’s leadership would have every right to make all the decisions they believe are necessary for the institution to thrive and survive without any outside consultation whatsoever.

      But like all nonprofits, PEM is NOT a strictly independent actor: it is an NGO enjoying tax-exempt status and other governmental benefits in exchange for the public “goods” it is expected and assumed to be providing.

      Not only does the PEM enjoy indirect public support through tax exemption, including exemption from local property taxes, in operating the Phillips Library it has assumed a particular public service role in the community: over the generations, the Phillips has come to serve as Salem’s de facto archives.

      The Phillips, not least because its collections do include some public and quasi-public records, is not just some private proprietary library that can simply “up stakes” on the whims of its leadership. It’s fate and future are matters in which the broader community has a legitimate stake.

      And it is the failure of PEM’s leadership to understand–or to try in any sense to meaningfully address–the “community responsibility” element of its overall mission that is at the core of the current controversy.

  • daseger

    Thank you for your excellent comments, Suzanne–not coming from the museum world myself, I am very interested in your views as well as those of John Grimes. While I have a very passionate point of view on the particular issue of the Phillips, I have strove throughout this crisis (and that’s how I view it) to present the positive points of PEM, as I feel there are many, but the leadership is determined to demonize any opposition, I fear.

    Two points that you have presented here are my worst fear: the “shedding” of the Phillips (that is exactly what it feels like to me) and perhaps the houses! I have also been continually surprised to see how……backward the PEM is in terms of all digital endeavors. While they have digitized the Phillips catalog they apparently do not have a digitized catalog of the objects? No integrated catalog will be possible, then, as Philcat is exclusively-library-focused? It just looks to me, who knows next-to-nothing about how museums run, that the focus has been all external to the detriment of the internal.

    I hope you can comment again!

  • greenheron628

    dcarleton, PEM says they have fulfilled their public obligation to the library collection. Their position is that they rescued it from a building that presents a danger, is not up to code, prevents proper stewardship and conservation. It has been responsibly moved to a safe state of the art climate controlled situation, where the collection will be available to the public (in Rowley). PEM butt, fully covered. If the PEM was a private institution, the library collection would have been sold or turfed to another institution years ago. In his comments to the Boston Globe, PEM’s director stated his perspective quite clearly. What Salem residents want is of little importance or consequence. To assume or demand input is not to know our place.

    Donna, I do feel that the houses are destined for some big changes, although probably not until the current controversy cools. PEM restored the Ropes and seems to view that as enough bone. The houses, like the library, don’t fit the world class art museum model. PEM has an opportunity to establish themselves as a unique cutting edge art institution if they could find a creative solution to the houses, but I suspect they don’t have the foresight or imagination, and clearly, they are unwilling to dedicate the finances. The houses divert a huge amount of PEM dollars and do not support the museum’s vision and agenda for art.The Ropes might be all we get. Good thing that historic houses cannot be packed up and shipped to Rowley. One doesn’t need a knowledge of museums to read the writing on the wall, written in display scale type.

    As both an artist and a Salem resident, naturally my feelings are mixed. The caliber of many PEM exhibits surpass even MFA offerings–MFA has vied for exhibits that went to the PEM. Patrick Dougherty, who created the stickworks is a huge deal in the art world. It was a treat to have a major piece by him in our own yard. I commented earlier on how I felt about Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve been twice already and will go again. Same with the Rodin. For me, PEM is a lovely beast, a force and a celebration of beauty.


    • daseger

      But what about all these dresses and shoes, Suzanne? And are you looking forward to Play Time? Car wash brushes in Salem’s sacred hall?

    • daseger

      And also: you should know that there are extant architectural studies and plans for the the perfect renovation of the historical Phillips Library buildings, to accommodate all concerns of preservation and accomodation. Let’s dispense with the fiction.

    • dccarletonjr

      Whether “What Salem residents want is of little importance or consequence” as regards the fate of the Phillips collections is something yet to be determined, I think.

      Certainly the question of the disposition of public-origin materials held by PEM like the Essex County probate records will be of interest to the Secretary of the Commonwealth and perhaps the Attorney General as well.

      Where the actual bounds of management’s freedom of action lie in this matter is something to be litigated–metaphorically, in the court of public opinion–not to mention literally, in terms of legal actions that may yet be taken.

  • greenheron628

    Lara Favaretto….she’s an Italian artist with an impressive exhibit record currently receiving international attention, recently exhibited at MoMA. I’ve read about her work, but have never experienced a piece in person, and yes, I’m excited to see it! It’s easy to laugh at the work when taken out of context, i.e. it’s just some car wash brushes. One needs to approach it with an open curious mind to pick up the content. Art is all about irony and metaphor. Favaretto’s work explores the momentary, which requires a viewer to experience it in the moment. PEM exhibition designers and curators do an excellent job of explaining work to an audience who might not arrive informed. That happened to me with the monster movie posters. I knew nothing about the genre, thought I had no interest, then went, and really enjoyed it. Monster movie posters 🙂

    I also loved the shoes! The birds and guitars. The wearable art–went twice, the pix are on my phone. These exhibits are about culture, something that many museums have been offering up in the past decade or so to attract audiences not necessarily informed or interested in art, like the famous Chinery guitar collection exhibit at the MFA and the Alexander McQueen at the Met, which btw, was held over for months by intense popular demand, lines around the block two and three times. Blockbuster exhibits garner a ton of press and make piles of money for the institutions. While I averted my eyes when the America’s cup yacht was stuck into the ground in the front yard of the MFA for six months, museums seek to attract new and broader audiences, reeling them in with a culture exhibit and exposing them to their collection in the process. The role of museums in art stewardship and exhibition has been a hot topic in the art world for some time, but that’s beyond the scope of a blog comment.

    It’s not about whether Salem residents approve or don’t approve of the art. Making fun is a way to vent, and that’s understandable, when people feel angry and unheard, but it’s tangential to the primary wound, the shedding, the removal, the loss. It’s hard to see friends and neighbors upset, and I’m upset too, but the Phillips collection won’t be coming back, no matter how much noise gets made.


    • daseger

      Well, you may be right, but as a historian I feel the responsibility to make a lot of noise about the loss, not only because I believe it is wrong for an institution to tear out the archival guts of a city, but also to document what’s happening.

  • greenheron628

    Then that’s what you must do. To be most productive in your efforts, I’d encourage you to press for the digitization. The museum is aware that they are monumentally behind other museums, lesser museums, in this regard and there’s ground to be gained there.

    Not sure you realize that the decision to move the Phillips was made multiple years ago with the mayor’s full support, and that she will support future decisions along these lines. You might consider expending energy on what is being decided and planned behind the big closed doors right now, the houses for example. The handwriting is there, we can read it, and have been shown that PEM approach decision-making is calculated, callous, and opaque. Laying the groundwork now in preparation for the houses decision is a good idea, because chances are good they have something in the planning stages already.

    Wanted to add, I’ve appreciated the civility of our discussion. I find myself in a hard place with Salem friends, as an arts professional, often falling off the fence onto the PEM side. I wish it wasn’t so, that Salem residents and PEM could be without a fence, but the fence is growing as the PEM grows and will only continue to do so.

    In the meantime, I’d encourage you to go to the Lara Favaretto installation without expectations, and see what you think 🙂

    • daseger

      I don’t realize that the decision was made to move the Phillips years ago with the Mayor’s support; this is certainly not what the Mayor herself says.

    • dccarletonjr

      Greenheron, I think many of us have had a hard time grasping how Mayor Driscoll could have been as caught unawares by PEM’s Rowley gambit as she has publicly represented.

      But the fact of the matter is that the Mayor has indeed said she was caught by surprise. So I doubt that I am alone in wondering the source of your knowledge that she is prevaricating!

      As regards the fate of PEM’s architectural collection, if you are aware of what is “going on behind closed doors right now” it might be a community service to enlighten all of us as to what is indeed transpiring…I see from their blog that they’ve contracted for new research on the Ward House, which is at least one ray of hope.

  • greenheron628

    Donna, two years ago the PEM began enacting this move. At some point, the mayor had to have given a nod. It would be nice to think she was blindsided like everyone else, but politics don’t work that way. PEM growth is all tied up with Salem growth, and the PEM is much bigger than Salem residents seem to understand.

    I wish you luck on your endeavors though. I do think there is reason for hope with the digitization demands.


    • daseger

      Well I might be naive but I prefer to have confidence in all of Salem’s elected officials at this point–all of whom have issued statements in support of the return of the Phillips materials. Certainly the PEM was looking for a large facility for its collections center a few years ago, and the Mayor was aware of this search, but at that time I believe it was for only the objects and not the library materials.

  • greenheron628

    dccarletonjr, no insider info, only a general working knowledge of museums as an artist/art professor, close museum observation, particularly in NYC/Boston for over four decades, alumna of the school run by the MFA, museum people friends, and a museum curator’s ex wife 🙂

    Re: the houses. Given PEM’s low level of commitment to the Salem community, the quiet forceful way PEM moves forward, their stated goal as a top tier art museum to be a trendsetter in exhibition practice, their lack of priority regarding the library, the historic houses seem vulnerable in that light, don’t they? Perhaps I’m wrong, I’d love to be wrong, but if they considered the houses as valuable assets, wouldn’t you expect them to be giving them more love?

    The changes that are coming with the new PEM wing/expansion will be monumental. We all might want to prepare for that. Although I don’t know exactly what is going on behind the closed doors, I’m certain that big things definitely are going on there.

    Donna, naive is more admirable than jaded. Yet, like me, you got an email out of the blue last week saying that your health insurance options would radically diminish in July. For five years, I’ve noticed how my Tufts plan benefits were diminishing, so this news came as no surprise. Even with the inevitable ensuing broohaha, I still am switching to Uni. Jaded is why.


  • shortb

    Hello Donna,

    Just a quick note, your link to ” the Congregational Library & Archives” in this post doesn’t appear to be working.

    Thanks for the information!

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