Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Sense of Place: The Phillips Library Reading Room Open House

The new Peabody Essex Museum Collections Center in Rowley, Massachusetts

As a genealogist, I’m always happy to find a clue, or to find that one document that leads to proving a family relationship.  It really doesn’t matter if that document exists online, on microfilm, in a book, in a dusty old library, or in a brand-new facility.  But sometimes the sense of place can be an important part of the discovery.  My internet and microfilm discoveries are often so “un-memorable” that they all blur together.  But I can still vividly remember discoveries made in the archbishop’s palace in Burgos, Spain or the afternoons I rode my bike to the beautiful reading room at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts for some of my first genealogy research trips as a teenager.  I can vividly remember each of the half dozen times I met up with cousins at the historic Phillips Library in Salem in those years ago before it closed permanently.  Even my visit to the temporary reading room for the Phillips Library in Danvers was soon forgotten because it paled in comparison to the original facility.

Reading colonial manuscripts in a sterile white room that resembles a laboratory reminds me of finding a genealogical gem of a clue on boring microfilm.  Especially when the last time I read those manuscripts was in the handsome Phillips Library in Salem, Massachusetts.  I just attended the open house of the new Collections Center for the Peabody Essex Museum in Rowley, Massachusetts which now houses the Phillips Library reading room and their stacks of books and related materials.  This new room, which I was prepared to see because friends had described it to me, was so shockingly different that several of the other people (all strangers to me) in my tour group gasped out loud.  I could feel their pain.  Interior photos were not allowed for security reasons. 

Whenever I found some new information in Salem’s Phillip’s library, I could immediately walk down the street and find something to center that bit of new family history data in its proper historical sense of place.  I once read a ship’s log, and then found that sea captain’s house just blocks away. There was the time that my cousin and I read through the Salem Custom House collection of papers, and then walked over to the Custom House itself to see where our great great grandfather had served as the deputy customs collector.  Several family reunions held in Beverly and Peabody had cousins running together over to the Phillips Library to see a document mentioned at the family meetings.  These were wonderful experiences.

Visits to the new reading room in Rowley will certainly uncover lots of family history.  I have a long list of manuscripts and books I’ve been waiting to consult from the Phillips Library online catalog.  I’ve been keeping this list for a few years, and it has grown quite long.  I look forward to requesting each book and item from the reference librarian and searching through for the clues and proofs I’ve been waiting patiently to see.  However, only the information will be memorable, not the facility.  These bits of Salem local history will be located 20 miles (40 minutes according to the MapQuest website) away from the neighborhoods it represents.

Look for this red sign off Route 1
for the Peabody Essex Museum Collection Center
at 306 Newburyport Turnpike, Rowley, Massachusetts

On Saturday, July 14th, the Peabody Essex Museum hosted an open house for the newly opened Collections Center at Rowley.    Although Rowley is closer to New Hampshire than Salem, it took us an hour and fifteen minutes to arrive at the parking lot.  It usually takes me an hour to get to Salem from Manchester, New Hampshire, although the search for parking in Salem probably make the difference in time a moot point.  The new facility has lots of free, available parking right at the front door.

There was a festive atmosphere out in front under a tent with snacks and cold drinks and tables to wait for our timed tour to start.  We arrived late, at 1:30, so we missed any speeches under the tent, but our tour started almost as soon as we were handed entrance stickers- very nice!  Later, a bus arrived and there was another long wait for tours.  Our tour group was very small, with only about a dozen people.

We were led inside a huge (think of the final scene in the first Indiana Jones movie when the Ark of the Covenant is carried off to a cavernous building for storage) warehouse style building.  In spite of the size of this facility we were only given a peek into two rooms other than the reading room described above.  We went down a long hallway past many, many doors with interesting labels, but these doors were all locked.  It would have been fun to be able to peek inside, but it would probably have been a huge security headache to the staff.  One of the rooms we viewed was piled high with shelves of furniture and objets d’art visible in their crates and packaging.  The second room we viewed was the library stacks, which was enormous and vast, but smelled deliciously familiar like old books always smell.

Everyone in our tour group was a PEM member, except for my family.  I haven’t had a membership since the library closed in 1997 for restoration, and only reopened to limited hours in 2004.   I’ve been kept informed about the goings on with the Phillip Library through the genealogical community and social media.  The other members of my tour seemed confused.  These PEM members were asking questions like “Why did the library close?”, and “When did the library close?”, and “Why was it moved out of Salem?”  I’m guessing that the member newsletter did not include a lot of information about this facility change.

The new facility is state-of-the-art in terms of preservation conditions and storage.  Any item requested in the reading room can be found only steps away in the massive stacks storage on the other side of the wall.  Some libraries have distant storage facilities, like the New England Historic Genealogical Society library in Boston and its storage in Connecticut.  Patrons requesting items from storage at NEHGS need to give a week’s notice!   Researchers will have wonderful access to materials in Rowley. 

In 2004, when the Phillips library said it would re-open to limited hours, it promised to put part of it’s collections on the Internet.  Very little has been scanned in the past 14 years compared to similar institutions, and some of that is not available to the public. Let’s hope that the PEM continues to digitize and make their Salem history items available to the people of Salem who have lost their access to local history.  One of our tour guides said that they were exploring for grants to help finance digitization efforts.

In the past few weeks I have exchanged a few email messages with the reference librarian.  I have a list of genealogy related questions she will be answering, and I will feature these in an upcoming blog post.  Stay tuned!

Phillips Library original Reading Room in 1885


For the truly curious:

“Visiting the Reading Room” from the Phillips Library website:

Salem residents state their opinions about moving the Phillips Library to Rowley in this NPR story:

 A blog post from Alyssa Conary who did the VIP tour of the Collections Center a week before the public open house:

From Robin C. Mason, a description of a visit to the new facility for research purposes:
also from Robin, a time line of the Phillips Library history including the mergers and moves


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "A Sense of Place:  The Phillips Library Reading Room Open House", Nutfield Genealogy, posted July 17, 2018, ( https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2018/07/a-sense-of-place-phillips-library.html: accessed [access date]).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your assessment, Heather. Though everyone who is interested in Salem and Essex County's dynamic history is grateful to the PEM for its care of this important collection, we believe that it should be housed in the historic buildings in Salem in which it began so that everyone can have the memorable and place-oriented experiences you reference. Those buildings are being renovated now, and during that process we will continue to advocate for the return of Salem's Phillips Library. Very interesting that that the PEM members on your tour knew nothing about this displacement!