There are two notable developments regarding the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the major archival source of Salem’s history, so (fair warning) I am returning to that troublesome topic. I don’t think I’ve written about the Library and its collections since the very beginning of the semester, when I made my first trip up to Rowley: out of sight, out of mind has been one of my major concerns about the relocation of this venerable collection to this rather detached location, and that’s pretty much been the case for me. The Library has regular open hours up there, the staff is very helpful, there are many discoveries to be made, but while I’m sure it is an invaluable repository for the curators of the Museum and specialized researchers, it’s hard to see how it could develop into any sort of a community resource, despite the nature of many of its collections. The PEM (or I should say its leadership to date) has never acknowledged the historical-society-origins of its amalgamated Library, so I’m sure that’s fine with them, but they have taken several strident steps towards open access in recent weeks with the hiring of a new Head Librarian and the announcement of a digitization initiative which will roll out in several stages. Following up on their partnership with the Congregational Library, which has made some important manuscript collections accessible, there are now some very interesting printed materials available in the Internet Archive, with lots more to come, apparently.
There is a facsimile edition, but how amazing to see the original 1693 maritime atlas of Pierre Mortier, the “most expensive sea-atlas ever published in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century” according to the eminent Dutch cartographical historian Cornelis Koeman. Stunning plates of beautiful European ships: here is a “Tartane de Pesche”.
This is wonderful: certainly the PEM should be commended for cracking open the treasure chest that is the Phillips Library but I do want to emphasize that this “opening” has been a long time coming and is as much due to outside pressures as inside initiatives. Thanks to all the people who are keeping track of these things in Salem (and to digitization), I have in my (FAT) Phillips Library file a collection of published articles in which a succession of PEM representatives made confusing claims about the museum’s progress towards making its holdings more accessible. In response to a major push-back by scholars and librarians in 2004 after Library hours and staff were reduced dramatically, the PEM indicated that increased internet offerings would compensate for the restricted access. Then-acting “Library Administrator” John R. Grimes made the egalitarian argument that “many of the people interested—or potentially interested—in historical documents are not professional researchers, but students and laypeople with regular jobs, for whom the new digitization technology and the Internet proved access to knowledge they would otherwise never see” (Northeast Regional Library Newsletter, June 2004). A decade later, Phillips Library Librarian Emeritus Sidney Berger published an update on the progress of digitization in the Winter 2014 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, stating that in an effort to bring the PEM’s material to a worldwide audience, during the last two years, PEM’s Phillips Library, with the assistance of a team of cataloguers, has gone from having 9 percent of its holdings to more than 90 percent digitally accessible; financial gifts from donors have made this possible. The team has undertaken a retrospective conversion of 175,000 old cataloging records into the preferred Library of Congress system and catalogued another 75,000 previously unprocessed materials. The retrospective conversion connects PEM’s vast library holdings to researchers near and far. One of the particularly gratifying aspects of this project has been to make 50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents that only exist in PEM’s Phillips Library Collection available online. We could all see the online catalog, a momentous achievement certainly, but where were the “50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents”? No one could find them, and there was also confusion among the general public about the distinction between “records” and “holdings”: both can refer to catalog entries as well as the documents themselves. I think the long-term claims and confusion left PEM in a bit of a vulnerable position when they finally announced that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, because it was apparent that there was no compensatory commitment to digitization. When pressed at the dramatic public forum on January 11, 2018, CEO Dan Monroe would only say that digitization was “expensive”.
Mr. Monroe at the 1/11/18 public forum at PEM.
So that is why the recent announcements are so welcome. Digitization goals are clearly stated. Mr. Monroe is departing, to be succeeded by Brian Kennedy, the director of the Toledo Art Museum, an institution that seems to have all of its collections online. The newly-hired head librarian, Dan Lipcan, has a great track record of digitization at the Watson Library at the Met (and, if this blog post about the devastating losses at Brazil’s Museu Nacional is any indication, a higher degree of sensitivity about the importance of material heritage to a locale than I have discerned from most representatives of the PEM). The chief of collections, John Childs, has been a pretty steady advocate for more digitization throughout, so I’m assuming that he is behind the initiatives that have already been put into place. The materials “deposited” in the Internet Archive seem very well-curated and seemingly representative of the Phillips Library’s diverse collection: local history, maritime history, natural history, fashion (not a strength of past collecting, but definitely a present and future emphasis), all about China, and more.
It’s very interesting to see the expansion vision that never happened on the front and back covers of the Essex Institute’s Annual Report from 1988, and I really want to dive into the Historic Structure Report for Derby Wharf from 1973, but I’ve also got to admit that I love George Barbier’s beautiful illustrations in Le bon ton d’après–guerre (the lady in the Poiret dress avec arrow above) and who can resist a book titled The Romance of Men’s Hats? But what I’m really looking forward to, along with many people, is the promised digitization of photographer Frank Cousins’ large body of work, encompassing images of Salem from c. 1890-1920. Apparently these are coming soon, and after that could we please see some scans from all those papers of Salem families? Almy, Butler & Robson, Crowinshield, Fabens, Lee, Loring, Peabody, Peirce-Nichols, Saltonstall, Waters……..my colleagues and I made a list if anyone’s interested.