The Phillips Library is being Moved from Salem, Massachusetts to Another Town, Taking Away some of Salem’s Most Valuable History and Genealogy Resources

From an article by Malcolm Gay in the Boston Globe web site:

“Salem is best known for the witch trials, but it was also a vitally important seaport in the Colonial economy and the hometown of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who took early inspiration for “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables” there.

“Now, angry residents say, a plan by the Peabody Essex Museum threatens to cut the city’s link to its proud history.

“The museum is preparing to move permanently a vast collection of the city’s historical records to a facility in another town and turn portions of the buildings that housed the museum’s Phillips Library into office space for the fast- growing museum.”

You can read the entire story at: http://bit.ly/2mASZHi.

My thanks to newsletter reader David Dearborn for telling me about this story.

Phillips Library in 1885

Comment by Dick Eastman: The fact that a collection of historical documents is being moved usually isn’t much of a concern for the patrons of that library. To access the same documents in the future, the patrons simply have to visit the new location. HOWEVER, this planned move has a far-reaching impact.

First, this is Salem, Massachusetts, a town that has a unique and a very important place in U.S. history. The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum contains all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s papers and many of the original documents of the witch trial hysteria and court documents. Now it is being moved out of Salem?

The plan is to move all the documents and books to Rowley, a town about 15 miles away.

Next, the Phillips Library has always been one of the most important genealogy libraries in New England. While other genealogy libraries may contain many of the same books, the Phillips Library also contains many original historical documents from the seventeenth century and later, even many old documents that have never been microfilmed or digitized.

On a personal note, the Phillips Library is the first genealogy library I ever visited. While I had previously collected information going back a few generations from some of my older relatives, my visit to the Phillips Library was my first attempt to find even earlier generations. In my first afternoon at the Phillips Library, I traced one branch of my ancestry back to the mid-1500s (with some rather good supporting documentation) and a couple of other branches to the 1700s. I returned to that library again and again and found many more branches as well.

Admittedly, the library’s contents will still be available at a new location, but I certainly will miss the 19th-century building that has always housed the Phillips Library.

11 Comments

Thanks for the great article Dick, as always. This is one of the very few times I have to disagree with you. Yes, the building is itself an historical treasure, and yes it is very much a part of the fabric that is Salem. But it is very hard to get to in Salem. Parking and traffic are problems. Moving the library to ANYWHERE in Rowley will fix those issues. Traveling to Salem from Merrimac, where I’m from, is like traveling to the other side of the Earth. Rowley being on Rte 95 will be far easier to get to for everyone.

The Salem Witch Trials occurred not just in Salem, but all over Essex County. What became the town of Danvers is where the real tragedies began, if I remember right. As the article rightly pointed out, the Phillips library holds the history of Essex County and more, not just the history of Salem.

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Unfortunately, the Peabody Essex Museum (now preferring to be called PEM) is trying hard to become ‘modern’ ‘updated’ and ‘hip’. In the process they are losing the essence of what they are. Sad.

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“First, this is Salem, Massachusetts, a town that has very unique and a very important place in U.S. history.”

Nope. It cannot by the very definition of the word have a very unique place in US history. Something is either unique or it is not unique: a binary choice with no wiggle room. Something can be nearly unique, in that there are only a very few of the something, but it cannot be quite unique, very unique, somewhat unique or fairly unique. All of those words cannot be used like that.

As for the reason for the move it looks like they are planning to better house the collection in a modern facility which cannot be achieved at the current facility. It cannot be acheived both for reasons of physical space and also complying with historic building laws. I’d say that’s a solid set of reasons for such a move.

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Well, I’m glad some people are finding this move convenient, but it is also a betrayal of trust of the many Salem families who left their papers to what was then widely acknowledged as Salem’s historical society: Salem materials constitute half of the manuscript collection. This is a museum that raised 650 million in their recent capital campaign: of course the collections can be accomodated in the historic Phillips Library buildings–but the leadership of the museum has chosen not to do so. The PEM leadership has also chose not to digitized its materials, and is consequently a good 15 years behind comparable institutions.

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Brian Laurie-Beaumont January 23, 2018 at 10:32 am

I spent four decades planning museum facility development across Canada and sometimes the US and Europe. Long-term preservation of archive materials require levels of environmental control hard to achieve in anything but a purpose built building, and would destroy the fabric of any historic building either through the atmospheric inter-action with external climate or the building renovation needed to counteract such inter-action, let alone the added capital and operating costs (long-term operating costs are far more of an issue than capital cost). For those who would say “these things have lasted a long time without these fancy designs” I invite them to do their research while freezing their butts off in the winter conditions our ancestors tolerated in those buildings of the past as those wintry conditions helped preserve items in the past.

Speaking personally, our family lines stem from many of the earliest settlers of Essex County so there is lots of family history for me to work on there – 400 miles from my home. Long term parking is a real problem/cost in Salem. I look forward to easier and less costly visits to Rowley.

Also, I am a proponent of spreading around economic development. Rowley’s economy will get a bigger boost from the new archive than Salem will lose.

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For anyone in the area who is interested, I just found out from a Salem News reporter specifically where in Rowley the facility will be located (he’s pretty sure): “I don’t have an exact address confirmed by PEM, but it looks like the old Schylling factory at 306 Newburyport Turnpike in Rowley. Schylling recently moved to High Street in North Andover, and I know from PEM that the site they are buying has about 112k in storage. That looks like it. “

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The safety of these valuable collections is paramount. Just remember the destruction of the great library of Alexandria in Egypt and what was lost forever.

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Donors intent for the Phillips Library to be a living institution in Salem is not respected. Fiduciary responsibilities dictates that the collection stays in the town that birth it and where it has resided for over 150 years. Your ancestors would not have approved. PEM will lose some very valuable archives and town records as a result of this move. Of course PEM could have found or created a repository in Salem if they wanted. They simply didn’t want to. They have moved a Chinese house from around the same period as other Salem houses! What about students and other folks who do not have the luxury of a car? Salem can be reached easily by public transportation. Where as Rowley location must be reached by car even after the train. That’s additional cost and time burden.

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It’s nice that some will find Rowley more convenient. It won’t be, however, for those without cars or who rely on public transit or who are on limited budgets. It’s 3.5 miles from the nearest public transit. Total cost of transport is estimated to be $9 for the train, plus a $12 Lyft or Uber ride from there to the PEM facility for a total of $21. That pretty much prices out access for a good segment of the population, not to mention, limiting the growing group who prefer not to own a vehicle.

The PEM has been undercutting the Phillips since 2004. They decided then that it would become a “research” library, limited to those who fit a capricious set of qualifications to use it, along with those willing to fill out a huge form, and wait days, if not weeks for approval, if indeed approval was forthcoming at all. There was quite a stir amongst historians, genealogists, and “plain folks” about that, but such never slows down the PEM.

In 2011, the museum then put out a press release stating that the buildings were going to be renovated and re-opened in 2013. Meanwhile, the library was moved to Peabody.

Tick, tick, tick.

In March ’17, they quietly bought the Rowley facility for $7mil. This had been on the radar long before March, however.

And finally, last summer, we got wind that the PL wasn’t coming back – that our glorious public buildings were to be office and meeting space for the PEM. Wait. WHAT???

Thus we are looking at fourteen years of the Phllips being slowly mothballed.

The argument that old buildings can’t accommodate archival-quality HVAC is lost on many, as we observe many a library where both co-exist. A better argument, that the collection won’t properly fit there, makes more sense; but we’re not buying that there’s not a single other place in Salem to store it, either.

As to the economic boost for Rowley? I’m hearing discord exists over the PEM removing that large property from the real estate tax rolls. And – do we think that a visit to the warehouse will inspire visitors to find a coffee shop in scenic downtown Rowley? Is there a downtown Rowley? Sorry, I am ignorant in that regard.

If the PEM had been a good citizen over the years, and kept the interests of the citizens of Salem at least partially on their radar, people might not be so outraged. However, good citizenship has not been the PEM’s bailiwick. If the PEM had even demonstrated some good faith by making any effort whatsoever to digitize the collection (no, not the catalog, the collection), we would be somewhat assuaged.

Neither of these conditions exist. We will fight on to keep our heritage here. It would really be terrific to have the Phillips back by 2026, Salem’s quadricentennial – but we’re not counting on it.

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