On Saturday, the public gets its first look inside the Peabody Essex Museum's new Collection Center in Rowley. But some Salem residents and historians have been fighting the relocation of the Phillips Library there.
The library is a vast repository of Salem and Essex County history with manuscripts, books, diaries, family letters, ship logs and other papers — many related to the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft in 1692 and 1693. Residents believe the singular collection belongs in Salem.
The documents were long held by the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum in Salem — and ultimately, the Peabody Essex Museum when the two institutions merged in 1992.
For nearly two decades, academic scholars, researchers and other people interested in divining the past and genealogies accessed the library in two historic buildings on the museum’s Salem campus until it was moved in 2011 to a temporary collection center in Peabody.
Advocates have been passionate in their campaign for the library’s return to its home city from Rowley, which is also in Essex County.
Alyssa Conary, co-founder of the Salem Historical Society, said, “It's very different driving out to Rowley than it is walking downtown to go to the research library. It is emotional, and it is symbolic. And it’s not just people in Salem, it’s scholars.”
New York University historian Jacob Remes is one of them. He relied heavily on the library for his book on the Salem fire of 1914. In a letter he sent to the museum in December he said, “As a historian, I much better understood Salem's history and geography from walking its streets and spending time there while I did my archival research. The research I did at the Phillips would have been much shallower and less rich had it not been literally embedded in Salem and its historic geography.”
Remes added, though, that where the archive is stored doesn't matter as much to him as the location where the public could access the archive.
"Lots of libraries and archives have offsite storage; researchers request material and it gets delivered to the reading room later that day or the next day," he said in a statement to WBUR. "It seems to me that such a system would be a perfect compromise between the museum’s legitimate storage needs and the community’s and researchers’ needs to keep material accessible in Salem."
In a statement regarding the ongoing issue, PEM director Dan Monroe said, “The museum has dedicated nearly $10 million to support library operations, to completely recatalog the collection and digitize the collection catalog.”
The preservation and digitization efforts, he added, “makes the collection more accessible than ever.” The reading room at the new location will be open to researchers during the week, according to the PEM. The museum also says the new center is climate-controlled.
Conary recently had the chance to tour the new center and said she doesn’t doubt the documents are being preserved under the best conditions. If the collection stays in Rowley, she hopes the museum will fashion the library's former buildings into a Salem History Center with the old reading room as a main point of access that includes more opportunity for engagement with the community.
The PEM said in a statement it's been addressing concerns raised by the relocation with city officials and working groups: “Exciting work is being done to create encounters with the Library collection on the Salem campus — both through an exhibition in the museum proper, as well as installations in the historic buildings, Plummer Hall and Daland House, that previously held the Phillips Library Collection.”
The collection has, and continues to be, a heated, complex topic in a Facebook group of more than 600 members called "Save The Phillips Library."
As Conary stated, it's deeply emotional on many levels for a lot of people who feel the museum is more dedicated to art than history.
For her part, Conary said she hopes the digitization efforts come to fruition, as well as more public dialogue about moving forward.
“We'll have to see, I mean, we're not going away anytime soon," she said. “We're not going to quit advocating for the return of the library, we're in it for the long run. At least I am. And I think one day in the future we will find a solution, and I think we'll get those collections back someday.”