Tag Archives: Libraries

The Year of Lost Archives

I must interrupt my festive holiday posts to mark a somber anniversary today: a year ago a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum admitted that there were no plans to reopen the long-shuttered Phillips Library in Salem, and that its archives and texts were soon to be relocated to a consolidated Collection Center in Rowley, in response to questions from members of the Salem Historical Commission. This admission was historic in a dual sense: it concerned history, the collected history of generations of Salem’s families and institutions, entrusted to an institution which couldn’t even be bothered to announce their removal, and it marked a moment in which Salem’s historic identity could now be cast in considerable doubt. It also triggered a series of responses and events which revealed so much to me about how history–and access to history—is perceived and valued in Salem. I was going to write an anniversary post anyway, just to wrap up this dismal year, but then an extraordinary coincidence manifested itself, and now I have a comparative format for my retrospective review. It happens that not only has my adopted hometown lost its archives, the hometown of my youth is on the verge of losing its as well! I feel like the personification of some powerful archival curse.

York Archives

Essex Institute IncorporationMr. James Kences of York, Maine protesting the imminent removal of Old York’s archives to a collections center in nearby Kittery, utilizing the same by-law precedent that we’ve employed here in Salem. Photo of Mr. Kences by Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline.

This may seem like an apples and oranges comparison with the only link being my personal interest, as the Peabody Essex Museum is a large, multi-faceted and well-endowed institution of international stature and the Museums of Old York constitute a local heritage organization with far fewer resources, but I think there are some interesting contrasts, particularly in the words and actions of the interested parties. Salem (1626) and York (1624) are also both venerable colonial settlements, with historical influence beyond their municipal boundaries. The Old York move is mandated by the sale of an old bank building in the center of town for redevelopment: not only have Old York’s plans been completely transparent since the publication of its strategic plan in 2015, but its Director, Joel Lefever, publicly acknowledged that York residents had the right to “raise questions” about the relocation of the archives out of town and even applauded the colorful protest of Mr. Kences. Compare this attitude and these statements to those of the now-retiring PEM Executive Director Dan Monroe: There was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand (Boston Globe, January 13, 2018).

Salem Hex

Old York’s decision to sell a downtown administrative building to focus resources on its historic buildings further afield was dictated by economic necessity and made in collaboration with the Town of York, which is embarking on a York Village revitalization project; the PEM’s decision to relocate the Phillips Library was a choice, not a necessity, made in isolation and opacity. Several organizations which had placed items on deposit in the Library, including the Salem Athenaeum and the Pickering House, were not even notified that their materials were to be relocated out of Salem. It was also revealed during the many hearings before the Historical Commission following the December 6 admission that the PEM had failed to file a master plan with the city of Salem, contrary to municipal regulations. While Salem residents are always in the dark when it comes to the PEM; I do hope our Planning Department knows more!

PEM Expansion PlanA romantic rendering of what might have been—if the PEM had fulfilled its promises to develop the Salem Armory and preserve the Phillips Library: not sure about the new situation of the John Ward House but it’s been moved once before. Not sure of the source or date either–I found it unlabeled on social media. Obviously the PEM went in quite a different direction.

There has also been a stark contrast in the reactions of municipal officials in York and Salem. Apparently there is no avenue to avoid the relocation of York’s archives to Kittery for the short term, but both the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen seem committed to finding a way for them to return. In an article in the York Weekly by Deborah McDermott, Town Manager Steve Burns allowed that there was no place suitable for the archives in York at present, But long term, the town I believe has an obligation to the heritage of the town to see if we can do something. This does not satisfy the passionate Mr. Kences, but I would be thrilled to hear a similar sentiment spoken in Salem: an obligation to the heritage of the town. For her part, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll never questioned publicly either the preservation-in-Rowley vs. decomposition-in-Salem scenario sold by PEM or its place-detached vision of history, and celebrated the Museum’s “investment in history” at the opening of the Collection Center in Rowley this past July. I do hope that the Museum makes a considerable investment in Salem’s history in the forms of library staff and digitization: at present (and as has been the case for some time) its most essential materials on commercial and cultural encounters in East Asia, so very valuable for the understanding of both local and world history, are accessible only behind a very expensive paywall at the digital publisher Adam Matthew and so inaccessible to Salem’s residents—and Salem students. While Salem’s history has been packaged as a digital “product”, the old Essex Institute buildings which once housed it remain dark and empty.

Abbot-Philips-Library-Plummer-Hall-Hi-Res-edited

There are also some interesting comparisons to be made regarding the quest for institutional and municipal vitality: the goal of both the PEM and Old York as well as their host communities. Old York’s archives are just that, historical archives, whereas the Phillips Collections of PEM constitute a large and multi-dimensional library, constituting myriad print and manuscript materials. It’s a bit difficult to see how the former collection could foster the development of a lively cultural community in York Village, but a Phillips Library returned to its original location could enhance Salem’s already vibrant cultural scene in many ways and expand its own community in the process. Libraries are meant to be used, and library collections are different than curatorial collections: the consolidation of both in a remote Collection Center–inaccessible via public transportation–may make sense from an administrative point of view, but it can only handicap the former in terms of its essential function. Just as I hope for more digitization of Phillips materials, I also hope that researchers are flocking to Rowley, but as yet I don’t see any evidence of the sorts of activities that are associated with other research libraries like those of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and (most familiar to me) the Folger Shakespeare Library: exhibits, events, brown bag talks, teacher workshops, crowdsourced transcription projects. It is early days for Rowley’s Phillips Library, so maybe these will come, but I believe such engagement would evolve far more easily in Salem’s Phillips Library, enlightening a dark stretch of Essex Street in the process.

Phillips last december

Anniversary 5In my open letter to the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum from nearly a year ago, I focused on Nancy Lenox Remond, because I wanted to emphasize the connection between place and history. I couldn’t imagine a better example of someone whose history was made by Salem and who made Salem’s history in return! Mrs. Remond and her husband John were the resident caterers at Hamilton Hall and also operated several other businesses in downtown Salem. There were organizing members of Salem’s African-American church and abolitionist societies, and they advocated successfully for the desegregation of Salem’s schools. They raised eight children in Salem, among them the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, for whom a seaside park in Salem is named. Here’s a photograph of Mrs. Remond and the Lafayette plaque at Hamilton Hall–which references a famous banquet which she and her husband John prepared. I didn’t understand a year ago, and I still don’t understand now, why the records of the lives and work of these extraordinary people, and all of the extraordinary people who made Salem, have to be located in Rowley.


What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

Things become crystal clear when you find yourself in a parallel universe and are able to discern what your universe lacks. Almost exactly a year ago, the Peabody Essex Museum notified researchers that the temporary Phillips Library location in Peabody would close for several months in order to move to a “new” location: this was confusing to many, as the Phillips had been relocated for the renovation of its historical buildings in Salem with PEM promises to return. But now this venerable library, constituting Salem’s major archive, was to move somewhere entirely new! Where? When? We didn’t know, but they of course did, and in December the admission finally came: the Phillips Library would be consolidated within a massive “Collection Center” in a former toy factory in Rowley, about a half hour to the north. Almost-unbelievable tone deafness on the part of the PEM leadership accompanied this………….removal every step of the way: here you can read the tale of the big move by a member of the Museum’s Collection Management Department who admits that for well over a year before it began, it took over her daily life. She knew, I guess everyone in the Museum knew, but no one bothered to tell the people of Salem.

PEM Collection Center Great HallThe “Great Hall” of the PEM Collection Center in Rowley.

So that leaves Salem archive-less, with no professional, nonprofit museum dedicated to collecting and interpreting its history, and a main street that is increasingly subdivided between the imposing architecture of PEM (yes, more space is needed for all those visiting exhibitions—that’s why Salem stuff must be dispensed to the north) and monster/vampire/witch wares. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition really, made more apparent to me when I was home (in York Harbor) on vacation a few weeks ago. I’m not really a beach person, so I spent most of my time prowling around nearby Portsmouth, and one morning, my father and I were treated to a basement-to-attic tour of the Portsmouth Athenaeum by the Keeper of its collections, Tom Hardiman.

Portsmouth Ath 12

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Athenaeums are essentially private membership libraries which circulate books old and new among their members and highlight their collections through exhibitions and programs: the Salem Athenaeum certainly plays a central role in the cultural life of the North Shore doing just that. But over its long history, the Portsmouth Athenaeum evolved into something much more: its active collection policy transformed it into an historical society which serves not only its membership but also its community. It’s an archive, a research center, a library and a museum, all at the same time. Keeper Hardiman assured me that the Athenaeum collects the history of the region (except for materials related to communities like York, which have active historical societies) and consequently space is in short supply and a satellite location might be necessary at some point, but of course the Athenaeum will remain right where it has always been: in Market Square, in the center of Portsmouth. He showed me the Athenaeum’s very first book, and its most valuable, along with charters, newspapers, photographs and objects (including the the axe wielded by Louis Wagner in the terrible 1873 Smuttynose murders, which is kept in a closed cabinet), as well as all sorts of places–public and private—that revealed its inner historical-society workings. Throughout, in both words and places, I discerned respect and even reverence for the resolve of its donors and benefactors.

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Portsmouth Ath 8 Bookplates and books, newspapers, cyclists, and a working bulletin board at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

It was a wonderful tour which I enjoyed immensely but I came away feeling sad, as I realized that so many of the corresponding items that the Athenaeum was holding for Portsmouth were lost to Salem. Certainly the book collection of the Salem Athenaeum is impressive but it is not, and has never been, a historical society: it didn’t have to be. That’s what the Essex Institute, one of the predecessors of the PEM, was: for well over a century. This is a role that is denied steadfastly by the leadership of the PEM but decades of library acquisitions reports and articles in the Bulletins and Historical Collections of the Essex Institute contradict this opinion. The case is moot, however, as these collections, in the form of the Phillips Library, have been removed from Salem and I’m sure that the PEM is in the midst of purchasing stacks of non-Salem, non-historical titles so to obliterate the foundational nature of the Library forever. I could go on and on for quite some time about the tragic nature of this obliteration, but I’ve already done that for a year: what we need at this time is a constructive takeaway. I began this post with a discussion of disclosure because my time in Portsmouth highlighted the importance of planning and coordination for me, and the trigger effect that one institution’s actions can have on others. In the mitigation following the PEM’s disclosure that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, it was revealed that, contrary to city regulations, the Museum had not submitted a Master Plan. This is an institution that withdrew from its commitment to the Salem Armory Headhouse in the 1990s, ultimately determining its demolition, and swallowed a city street whole in the next decade: didn’t we need to know what it was going to do next? Don’t we need to know what it is going to do next? Salem trembles with the PEM’s every move, and Salem’s institutions could have compensated for its historical withdrawal if they knew it was coming: but they did not. Imagine a real historical museum in Salem just like that projected in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment published in 1991, the year before the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum into the Peabody Essex Museum. Though just one of several alternative proposals for the site, I’m sure that this “Derby Wharf Museum” failed to get much support because everyone thought Salem already has a maritime museum, but now that museum is gone—and so much more.

Derby Wharf Museum collage

Salem Willows Portsmouth AthenaeumSalem Maritime’s proposed “Derby Wharf Museum” in its 1991 Site Plan, one of several proposed alternatives for the Site which you can see here; there are even a few Salem items among the digitized photographs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s collection.


Rolling in Their Graves

I promise: this is the last Phillips Library post for quite some time. It’s been six months since the Peabody Essex Museum admitted, under duress and only because they needed approvals from the Salem Historical Commission, that the Library was moving to a former toy factory off Route One in Rowley, Massachusetts. Since then there has been a public forum, lots of meetings, a succession of newspaper articles in the Salem News and the Boston Globe, a stern letter to the PEM from the President of the American Historical Association, and countless posts by me appealing, edifying, and scolding the Museum’s leadership. All to no avail: the Library–constituting a great part of Salem’s documentary history–is now in Rowley, and from what I hear (from a friend who is desperately trying to finish her Ph.D. dissertation–they didn’t tell her the Phillips was going to close last September either), is set to open sometime in June. Even the Google address (sort of) has changed, so that must be that, right?

Phillips Location

The address of the Phillips has changed but everything else remains the same: photographs of the interior and exterior, and its description: in the Essex Institute Historic District of Salem. If past practices are any indication, this half-correct entry will be up for quite some time: when the Phillips was moved to a temporary location in 2011 for the restoration of the building you see above, the address was never changed. And so I must say that the two men who are referenced in this entry—one visually and the other by name—are likely rolling in their graves after all that has happened. The photograph on the left is of Dr. Henry Wheatland (1812-1893) in one of the Phillips’ smaller reading rooms, around 1885. Dr. Wheatland dedicated his life to the Essex Institute, helping to found it through a merger of the Essex County Natural History Society and the Essex Historical Society in 1848, and serving later as the Institute’s Secretary, Treasurer, and President. As the finding aid to his papers in the Phillips Library asserts, Dr. Wheatland “devoted much of his life to ensuring that the Institute became a ‘permanent centre of influence for the enlightenment and instruction of the community'” and even continued to serve as its President after he was struck with paralysis at age 80, until his death. Wheatland was born in Salem and he died in Salem, and his will, like the wills of many donors to the Essex Institute and its library, left bequests to a Salem institution. I know he was referencing his desire that the Essex Institute’s library should be reference only in his 1893 will, but still: no books [should/to] be taken from the building except in extraordinary circumstances.

Wheatland collage                                                                                  New York Times, 1893.

The prominent and prolific Boston architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant (1816-1899), is another grave-roller, as he was the architect of the Italianate Daland house which has served as part of the Phillips Library in Salem for over a century and would certainly not want to be associated with the suburban industrial building that now constitutes the Phillips Library in Rowley. His name should be removed at once.

Phillips Library Rowley

800px-Bigelow_Chapel_-_080167pv One of Bryant’s more notable commissions: the Bigelow Chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Library of Congress.

I can’t speak for all the people that put their trust in the predecessors of PEM, but fortunately it is a registered non-profit in Massachusetts and so its actions are subject to review by our Attorney General, Maura Healey. Several weeks ago a meticulous brief was delivered to her office formally requesting that the Public Charities Division review the actions of the PEM relative to the Phillips Library under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 12, Section 8H, regarding breaches of trust. The many “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library” who have emerged over these past six months are sending letters in support of this brief and its request for review, and you can too if you like: Office of the Attorney General/Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division/One Ashburton Place/ Boston, MA 02108.

Some other updates:

Contrary to what I reported here last week, the Working Group organized by Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe is still working: they will have more meetings. Their agenda still seems to be exclusively PEM-driven and they have a very odd understanding of what “collections” constitute, but they are still at work.

It looks like the votes are there for the Salem Historical Commission to approve the demolition of the 1966 “Stacks” building at the rear of Gridley Bryant’s Daland House. Everyone agrees that this space was insufficient to store the vast collections of the Phillips, and it is rather inelegant, as you can see below. When the library was moved in 2011 to a temporary location to accommodate the renovation and expansion of all of the Phillips buildings, it became apparent that this addition was essentially unworkable, given the integrated structure of its construction. The PEM leadership implied that they just learned this in 2017, and so were “forced” to abandon all of the Phillips buildings (and Salem) altogether, but we have learned of several mitigating plans from the intervening years, including those which specified the construction of a brand new “stacks” building. In any case, the present Phillips buildings are not ready to accept all the collections at this time, primarily due to the poor planning of PEM. Rowley can be yet another temporary facility for these materials, but we are continuing to work to bring them back to Salem.

Phillips Stacks The windowless “stacks” addition may soon be coming down. Salem News photograph.

And what about digitization? The fact that the PEM is at least a decade behind comparable institutions in the digitization of its holdings has become common knowledge: the institution itself has acknowledged its deficiency by including “digitization priorities” on the limited Working Group agenda. There is some progress: I noticed just the other day that several records of the Salem Witch Trials have been added to the limited digital collections of the Library. The bulk of Witch Trial records were digitized a decade ago by a team of scholars and have been available at a (much more contextual) site sponsored by the University of Virginia since that time, but there are hopes that the well-endowed PEM will someday provide a global scholarly community with more materials which will elucidate this often-told story, and so many more lesser-known ones.

I’m certainly moving on to other stories. After all, spring has finally arrived, the trillium are out, and there are places to go and more diverse and distant pasts to explore. If there are any new developments, I’ll post them here, but only if they are course-changing.

P.S. And thanks for your patience—especially those of you who are perhaps not quite so interested (obsessed) with this issue!


Rescinding the Rump

The official response to the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant admission to the removal of Salem’s historical archives to a storage facility in Rowley was the formation of a “Working Group” by Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe. In partnership, Ms. Driscoll and Mr. Monroe chose the members of this group, identified as “stakeholders”, from among Salem’s local officials and heritage and tourism organizations. I was wary from the very announcement of this group, because I believe that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders”, impacted equally by a short-sighted and disrespectful policy which removed the material heritage of a great city. (I also really, really, really dislike that divisive and disingenuous term). Nevertheless, I knew that there were well-intentioned and thoughtful people in this Working Group, so I hoped for the best. Now it appears that the work of the Group is complete: as the agenda for its third (and presumably last) meeting this week includes the item “Final Statement”, I assume it’s a wrap.

So what has been accomplished?  You don’t have to rely on my assessment: it’s all in the public statement issued on behalf of the Working Group on April 10. As a result of these “discussions” (one meeting was a meet-and-greet, the other a tour of the Rowley facility), the PEM has agreed to open Plummer Hall and the Saltstonall Reading Room of the former Phillips Library to the public as a “research facility” stocked with bound editions of the long-running Essex Institute journals the Essex Institute Historical Collections and American Neptune plus terminals that can be used to access “digital information from the Phillips Library”, very few items of which have been digitized!  In fact, one of the few things that the PEM has seen fit to digitize is the American Neptune, and the Essex Institute Historical Collections is available right down Essex Street at the Salem Public Library, so this concession (which was actually announced before the formation of the Working Group) is a joke, an insult, and an outrage.

WG Statement

After I heard that the Working Group was concluding its work, just yesterday, the first image that flew in my head was that of Oliver Cromwell marching into Parliament on April 20, 1653 and dissolving the powerless remnant (Rump) that was all that remained of the Long Parliament for which he had waged a revolution, and afterwards overtaken, with the famously paraphrased speech: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go! (It was likely a far more colorful dismissal ). An ineffectual body, but yet the only semblance of “representative” government, disbanded just like that. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who could make such a connection: it must be the April dates—and my preparations for my summer graduate course on early modern English history. Or it might be my desire to find refuge in the past when the present is so bleak.

Rump 1790 BM

Rump West

Rump 1885 Cassells

Rump Cromwell Great MenFour very different Cromwells dissolving the Rump Parliament on April 20, 1653: British Museum, 1790; Benjamin West, 1782, Montclair Museum of Art; and Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

So the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum remains resolute in their decades-long campaign to bury Salem’s history, successfully (so far) employing strategies of restricted access, the redeployment of resources, and a confusing (and likely very, very costly) renovation, aided very ably by the accommodations of our elected officials. There may be some external pressures from this point on, but I am so very sorry that those in positions of power and influence in historic Salem have chosen not to safeguard, much less fight for, its history.


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.


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.


African-American History at the Phillips Library

On the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday here in Salem and across the country, I thought I would highlight some sources for African-American history in the major repository for local history in our region, which is of course the PEM’s Phillips Library. I am aware of several scholars interested in various aspects of Salem’s rich African-American history: in the community, at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and at Salem State University: my colleague Bethany Jay’s bookUnderstanding and Teaching American Slavery, is serving as a resource for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative on slavery, and two of our graduate students received SPLC research fellowships last year. Bethany’s work is national in scope, but I don’t know how anyone interested in Salem’s African-American history could possibly engage in research, given the present closure of the library, the restriction of hours and staff before that, and the decade-long disinterest in digitization. That said, the digitized catalog reveals some amazing sources, including the papers of the Waters family (MSS 92), members of which were actively engaged in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation ownership, as well as records of Salem’s various abolitionist societies, the records of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, various diaries, lists and logbooks, the Remond family papers, and two letters from the author, poet, educator and activist Charlotte Forten Grimké to John Greenleaf Whittier (which I’m not sure are available anywhere else, certainly not in this 1911 collection of Whittier’s correspondence, published in Salem). Unfortunately the finding aid for the Whittier letters refers to Forten incorrectly as a former slave: she was in fact a “free woman of color” sent by her relatively affluent and connected Philadelphia family to Salem to receive an integrated education in the Salem public schools (while living with the Remond family) after which she enrolled in the Salem Normal School (the precursor of SSU), as its first African-American student, in 1855. Just before her graduation a year later, she was summoned to the Principal’s office to hear the happy news that she was to be offered a teaching position at the Epes School on Aborn Street Court. The entry in her wonderful journal cannot contain her excitement: in the conservative, aristocratic old city of Salem!!! Wonderful indeed it is!…..Can it be true?

AA Phillips collage

Charlotte Forten

AA Phillips Liberator Forter 1856 Aug 1

The records of the country’s first female abolitionist society, the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (of which Forten was a member), are in the Phillips Library, as are those of the Salem Lyceum, which hosted the Society’s lecture series, as well as those of many other Salem organizations. A cabinet photo of Charlotte Forten [Grimké], c. 1878, New York Public Library, and a story on Forten in The Liberator, shortly after her appointment in 1856.

In the broad sweep of Salem’s African-American history, as in its general history, there are moments of achievement and pride and moments of disgrace and regret. Locally, we are accustomed to hearing about Salem’s glorious China trade but not its more abhorrent exchanges. But we appear to be in the midst of a Renaissance in the study of American slavery, with the impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North subject to particular revision and reexamination. PEM curator Gordon Wilkins’ reexamination of two prized colonial portraits that have been in the Museum’s collection since 1878 views Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch, the former a very active slave trader, in a new light, reflected by this revisionist history.

Fitch Portraits

Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch in Peabody Essex Museum’s American art galleries (photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum).

Wilkins asserts that PEM is committed to examining overlooked histories embodied in the objects that comprise our vast collections, and one hopes that this commitment will one day extend to the papers in the vast collections of the Phillips. Because there is a lot more to learn, and a lot less to overlook. I’m going to close with the comments of one of our graduate students at SSU, Thomas Landers (because I find that engaged graduate students are always very good at telling us what they–and us–need), in reference to the Waters-owned ship Abeona, which engaged in the slave trade between Senegal and Cuba in the 1790s. There’s a court case that sheds some light on the Abeona’s trade but its owner’s papers “sit locked away among the documents from other Salem families which traded in human flesh–names such as Fairfield, Smith, Ropes, Crowninshield, Grafton–in the Phillips Library collections, threatened to be removed from the city to which we owe their creation and preservation”.


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