Tag Archives: Librarians

PEM: Praise and Public History

Ever since that fateful night in early December 2017 when a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum disclosed that the vast majority of the collections in its Phillips Library, the major repository for Salem’s history, would be moved to a storage facility in Rowley, I’ve been both very critical of this decision and very focused on the institutional leadership which made it. This admission is no surprise to regular (likely suffering in silence) readers: much more so will be the praise that I’m actually going to heap on the PEM in this post! Just this past week the museum announced two new positions: a manager of historic structures and landscapes for its historic houses in Salem and a head librarian for the Phillips Library. From my perspective, both positions signal a renewed commitment to the Salem resources which the PEM inherited from its founding institutions, particularly the Essex Institute. I’ve never questioned the PEM’s stewardship of its assets: my major concern has been mothballing, so investment in these important areas is very welcome. The architectural position seems focused on preservation issues, but the new librarian will be charged with some big organizational and outreach responsibilities, including increasing the Library’s responsiveness to the needs of local, regional, national and international researchers, integrating it more fully into the Museum, and transforming the Phillips into an innovative and active intellectual hub supporting the overall mission and global scope of the PEM. All this and the long-awaited digitization plan! This is a very responsible position and the PEM should be commended for seeking to fill it.

Librarian collage

Librarian Library of Congress 1966Challenges & Opportunities:  The Head Librarian in Sam Walter Foss’s Song of the Library Staff (1906); “To the rescue. Many librarians believe computers are the only means to effectively cope with their bulging bookshelves” (1966). New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress. 

That said, I’m just not sure how the PEM is going to create the “innovative and active intellectual hub” it is referencing in this job description in a storage facility off Route One in Rowley, much less foster the community engagement that is referenced continually in all of its messaging. My continuing preoccupation with the relocation of the Phillips Library stems from outrage at the removal of Salem’s historical archives, but also confusion about how such a move aligns with the PEM’s own goals. I understand the PEM’s arguments about the logistics of conservation and digitization, but what about integration? How can the Library be integrated more fully with the Museum when the Library is in Rowley and the curators of the Museum—as well as the physical Museum itself—are in Salem? Perhaps the goal is a virtual/digital integration, but we all know that that’s a long way off for the PEM. Discussion of LAM (Libraries, Archives & Museums) integration has been evolving for over a decade, and the Head Librarian job description indicates awareness of this dialogue, but the PEM seems oddly out of touch with other cultural trends, namely the evolution (and rejuvenation in many cases) of libraries as places not only of collections but also myriad connections and the growth of a dynamic field and practice of public history which emphasizes a wider and more multi-faceted engagement with the past. The PEM is investing a lot of money in the restoration of the physical buildings which constitute the (former?) Phillips Library in Salem but what purposes—and who— will this space serve once it is finished?

AAR collagePast & Present: the Library of the American Academy in Rome in 1933 and today, “a perfect blend of the past with the contemporary demands of modern scholarship.”

I understand that the h-word is anathema in the upper realms of the PEM but why ignore the demands of its host community, the interests of hundreds of thousands of visitors to Salem each year, as well as the strengths of its collections and its stated goals of “community engagement” by abandoning history? The answer can only lie in a very simplistic (and musty) understanding of what historical interpretation in the public realm constitutes these days: Colonial Williamsburg blinders if you will. Many of the PEM/PM Third Thursday events (now defunct), had historical aspects, as exemplified in its (also now defunct?) Phillips Library blog, Conversant. “History” is not all about the War of 1812 or even the Salem Witch Trials (I swear): it’s also about fashion, food, play, cross-cultural encounters, and golden ages, all of which the Peabody Essex Museum clearly embraces. History is about home, and housing: just imagine a PEM-initiated public history project about housing in Salem past, present and future similar to the 2016 symposium organized by the Cambridge Historical Society entitled “Housing for All?”. I can’t imagine anything more relevant, more engaging, and more reflective of the Museum + Library’s integrated resources.

Before_the_Fire__Salem_Neighborhood_North_Side_of_Broad_Street

Redevelopment__Completed_Reconstruction_The_PointBefore & After the Great Salem Fire of 1914: Housing on the northern side of Broad Street before the Fire and Mill Hill after, Phillips Library Digital Collections.


A Salem Suffragette

Well, today is Women’s Equality Day, designated in 1971 to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally granted women the right to vote after a long struggle for suffrage. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never knew this was a “day”, but it seems as good a time as any to shine a spotlight on a Salem suffragist (I’m an English historian, so I used my preferred “Suffragette” in the title, but the more appropriate American term is “Suffragist”). I’m certain that there was more than one fierce advocate of votes for women in progressive Salem, but Margery Bedinger of Forrester Street committed at a crucial time, and went on to lead a very interesting and independent life. And I have pictures! Margery was born in Salem in 1891, the daughter of the Rector of St. Peter’s Church (and the granddaughter of the Ambassador to Denmark). She matriculated at Smith College first, but graduated from Radcliffe in 1913. In 1914 and 1915, she was one of many members of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association campaigning actively in support of a state referendum to give women the right to vote. The suffragists and their supporters walked, ran, trolleyed, biked and drove all around the Commonwealth, distributing their colorful materials and holding open-air forums, and capped off their campaign with of parade of 9000 supporters (including Helen Keller) on October 16. Despite their efforts, the referendum failed, and Massachusetts women did not gain the vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920. Margery was no doubt disappointed by the returns of 1915, but she moved steadfastly forward (and west–where suffrage had triumphed first), completing her graduate degree in Library Science and becoming the first female librarian at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the 1920s (and later publishing a “spirited” article about the Academy entitled “The Goose Step at West Point” in the New Republic), assuming a succession of library directorships at academic libraries in Montana, Washington, and New Mexico, authoring an authoritative book on Native American jewelry, traveling the world, and finally retiring to Hawaii!

Margery Bedinger was an incredibly accomplished woman but I only discovered her through another incredibly accomplished woman: Florence Hope Luscomb (1887-1985), the leader of the Massachusetts Suffrage movement and one of the first women to graduate from the distinguished architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (this was just the beginning of a long lifetime of social and political activism). Luscomb’s papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, and while I was looking around for things related to her architectural practice, I found Margery, her comrade in 1915. And here is Margery at work and at play, in those interesting times a century ago.

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Margery Bedinger of Salem (front and center) and her Massachusetts suffragist colleagues on their “auto tour” across the state, 1915, & Margery and her horse somewhere out west a bit later and in close-up, from the Florence Hope Luscomb Archive at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Below: a broadside and paraphernalia from the 1915 campaign–the back of the fan reads “keep cool and raise a breeze for suffrage”.

Suffrage Broadside 1915 MHS

Suffrage mementos MA


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