Daily Archives: February 10, 2019

My First Visit to the Phillips Library in Rowley

Well, I knew the day had to come: my first visit to the Phillips Library in Rowley. Even as many were protesting the move of the Peabody Essex Museum’s research library, which includes the historic records of hundreds of Salem families, institutions, and organizations, to a town 40 minutes to the north, the Museum opened up its Collection Center in Rowley this summer with a new Phillips Library within the great expanse of a former toy factory. Shuttles delivered scores of curious Salemites to Rowley for an open house in July, but that’s the last we have seen of this service. If you want to go to Rowley, you must drive there, but it is indeed worth the trip for any Salem history lover (or any history lover, because Salem’s history is so rich and multi-faceted), because that’s where Salem’s history is: it is not convenient, it is not right, but there it is. 

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This sign on Route One says everything: “Collection Center” rather than “CollectionS Center”. The entire rationale for the move was the conflation of object collections with the texts of the library, but libraries are very different things than storage facilities. Libraries are about community, and it’s difficult to understand how this transplanted Phillips Library is going to develop a community in this rather remote and odd place. The small and utilitarian reading room—very different from all of the research libraries I’ve worked in with texture and age and wood–is on the immediate right of the building above. Just walk in through glass-box door, register with the very nice guard at the entrance, put your coat and accessories in a locker, and go into the reading room, where you will be directed to register as a researcher. I paged the documents I wanted to see beforehand (at research@pem.org) and they were right there waiting for me when I got there, but I also asked for additional materials while I was there. The librarians were very friendly, helpful, and professional.

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That’s as close to a document that I can show you—it might even be too close: I was just trying to photograph the room. The Library’s photography policy specifies study/research purposes only. I was doing some research for Hamilton Hall on the Remond family who lived and worked there, and so I was looking at amazing stuff—menus, bills and orders for all sorts of commodities, trade cards, letters—I took pictures for myself but can’t show them to you. If you find things that you want to reproduce, you must go through the PEM’s rights and reproductions process, which I did, though this too seems more oriented towards objects than texts. This is pretty standard procedure, although many research libraries now allow photography for social media purposes and you will see lots of researchers sharing their discoveries in the Houghton Library, the Folger, the American Antiquarian Society, the Beinecke Library, and more, on Twitter and Instagram: hashtags are a great way to showcase collections and build communities. This type of scholarly sharing is not the policy of the Phillips Library at present, although the Library’s old Instagram account (@pemlibrary) has been revived so you can see some of its treasures there.

PEM 6Nostalgic call slips featuring the old Salem locations in Daland and Plummer Halls.

But that’s about the extent of efforts to engage for now. Will there be exhibits, lectures, or workshops? It’s hard to envision the general public clamoring to convene in this rather remote location (especially at night!), so I’m thinking the only form of community which might form around this new Phillips Library is a virtual one of dedicated researchers. Digital crowdsourcing initiatives would be great, because so much of its collections remains undigitized. But for now, it is imperative that people go: we need to extract Salem’s stories from this place! Even if the PEM had lived up to its promises of digitization made years ago, the real Phillips Library is going to yield surprises and discoveries for decades, wherever it is. Libraries are not only essentially about community, they are also about discovery, and there is a lot to discover among the rich collections of the Phillips. I’ll give you an example from this first visit. Included in one of my Remond folders was a letter about the African-American caterer who succeeded John Remond in Hamilton Hall, Edward Cassell, dated July 25, 1910, addressed to someone named “John” and written by N.D. Silsbee of Cohasset, Massachusetts (I think this must be Nathaniel Devereux Silsbee). John had obviously asked Silsbee for his recollections of Cassell, who was lauded in a celebratory article in the Boston Globe at just about the same time. In this letter, Silsbee delivers, and I learned all sorts of things about Cassell which I did not know: I transcribed the whole thing and will report later! Unfortunately, to establish some sort of intimacy between himself and John, or some strange type of context, Silsbee also includes one of the most racist lines I’ve ever read (TRIGGER WARNING): “There, John, is a reminder of the good old slavery days,’ befo de wah’, when good servants were cheap and plenty!” (MSS 271 BI F6, “Letter of N.D. Silsbee, page 2). Discoveries, of both the pleasant and unpleasant kind, always happen in libraries with collections as large as that of the Phillips: catalogs and finding aids inevitably miss things. That’s the thrill of the hunt, and the reason that opening up a folder of manuscript materials is always going to be more exciting than clicking on a link.

Cassell Photograph HNE The always dignified Mr. Edward Cassell (who catered events at far more places than Hamilton Hall!) standing before the Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, 1907. Courtesy of Historic New England.


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