Tag Archives: Salem History

Cracking Open the Treasure Chest

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.

PEM atlasmaritime1700mort_0060There 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 magazinestating 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”.

PEM DMMr. 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.

PEM Pickering

PEM journaloftravels1794saun_0005

PEM hamiltonhallerec0000fabe_0001

Essex Institute Annual Report 1988

PEM derbywharfsalemm1973dobr_0001

PEM Hats

PEM lebontondapresgu1192barb_0025

PEM horticulturalreg1112unse_0009

PEM Chinese Junks 1920

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’aprèsguerre (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.


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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