Thursday, July 19, 2018

Genealogy Research at the Phillips Library

There are some genealogy researchers who never had the chance to do research at the old Phillips Library.  And there are others who have been waiting for years for it reopen.  Since it won't reopen any time soon in Salem, and is now relocated to Rowley, there are some things you need to know if you want to research the Phillips Library collections.

The reading room is located at the Peabody Essex Museum Collections Center at 306 Newburyport Turnpike (Route 1) in Rowley, Massachusetts.  If you are familiar with Rowley, it is less than a mile from the Agawam Diner, heading north towards Newburyport, in the old Schylling toy distribution warehouse.  Look for the red sign on Route 1, left side northbound or right side southbound (its not too big and hard to read the lettering).

Researching at the Phillips Library is free.  There is no day fee required, nor is a membership required.  You don't need a researcher card, like at NARA in Washington or at AAS in Worcester.  Parking is free, and abundant. For folks who used to take public transportation, this new facility is 3 or 4 miles from the Rowley train station, and there is no bus or taxi service. I'm not sure if Uber covers Rowley, but that would be a commuters only possible option since it is a very long walk with no sidewalks on the side of busy highways. 

The Phillips Library reading room is only open to drop-in patrons on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 4pm.  No Saturday hours.  It is open by appointment on Mondays and Fridays from 10am - 4pm.  This fall the hours will be changed and/or extended so email or check the website.

The Phillips Library is a closed-stack library.  You must request items by filling out call slips and the staff will retrieve them and bring them to you in the reading room. 

HINT:  You can email in advance at and the staff will have your desired items waiting for you when you arrive at the library.

HINT:  from the reference librarian "We do not pull materials after 3:30 pm, and cannot guarantee that we can pull materials on demand between noon and 1:00 PM.  Contacting us ahead of time will allow us to have materials ready no matter your arrival time.  Also, if someone knows what they want, but cannot locate a call number, or has questions about manuscript finding aids, we can offer guidance in advance, which is less disruptive to other patrons who may be using our reading room."  Experienced researchers are probably accustomed to requesting items ahead of time at other archives and libraries, and the Phillips Library uses the same system.

Before your visit peruse the online catalog, known as Philcat, to see if there is something unique in the collections that you cannot see elsewhere.  These are the materials you probably want to see first during your visit to the Phillips Library reading room.  You can find Philcat at this link:   There are also finding aids, but the website links are currently broken.  There are a few collections digitized and available to see online.  The reference librarian has been very good about answering email within a few days.

You may photograph some items at the Phillips Library.  There are a few restrictions. The reference librarian stated "Manuscript collections may have restrictions in the deeds of gift, placed on them by donors that we need to honor.  We do allow photography of published material within our collection, but insist that it can be for research purposes only, so that it falls under Fair Use, and does not violate copyright laws."

Some items in the card catalog Philcat are not available to researchers.  According to the reference librarian: "...items that are restricted from researchers are due to conditions outlined in the deed of gift.  There are only a few collections that have restrictions, and most have an appointed person to contact for exceptions. Others just have a date after which the restriction ends.  Restrictions should be listed in the catalog record/finding aid.  To see an example, please enter "MH 176" into the Philcat search bar and view the corresponding record."   Follow this search and read the interesting label on the notes on this card catalog item.  Special requests must be made in advance if you want to view this item.

As a genealogist, some of the manuscripts and family papers stored here are the items I find the most interesting and important to my research. If you are researching any maritime ancestors, the ships logs, shipping records, and related items are equally important.  The only family papers that are currently digitized are from the WINTHROP family.   According to the reference librarian "We are currently working to set up a digitization priority list.  It will most likely be based on how frequently collections are used and preservation needs.  I anticipate some of the Salem founding families will be among the first, such as the Derby papers, but as we haven't yet completed the prioritization list, I cannot tell you which families will be included."   This means that a visit to the reading room is important for anyone who wants to see these items that have not yet been digitized.

The Phillips Library is not a genealogy library.  There are no genealogists on the staff.  You won't find a bookcase of the "Tan Books" (Massachusetts vital records to 1849), or city directories, or any other books in the reading room.  All books are in the closed stacks.  There are a few vital records books and town directories that relate to Salem and Essex County in the card catalog.  The rest are either not here, or available at Google Books or Internet Archives, or at other libraries with good genealogy resources.  Some of the strengths of the Phillips Library collection can be see online at the website 

When you arrive, the old rules from the old Salem Phillips Library still apply.  You must store all bags, coats, and pens in the available storage lockers.  You may bring your laptop, phone or digital camera.  I did not see any photography cradles or similar equipment for photographing fragile manuscripts or books. Perhaps they are brought out as needed?  According to a blogger Robin Mason, who has used the new reading room, you must buzz in at the front door, and then check in with a guard who will give you a pass that must be returned to the guard before you leave the collections building.  She also gave the hint that multiple manuscripts can be ordered on the call slip for manuscripts, but non-manuscripts must be ordered one at at time using a different style of call slip.

Other trivia:  There are lockers in the hallway outside of the restrooms.  I saw a water fountain in the hallway. Water bottles are not allowed inside the reading room.  There is no break room available to eat a snack, sip a drink, or have a sandwich at lunchtime.  I suppose you could slip out to your car to drink a coffee or eat a sandwich if you are on an all day visit, or you could run down the street to the Agawam diner.  Nearby are a McDonalds, a Dunkin' Donuts, a Chinese restaurant, and a pizza place.

I can't wait to have my first research trip to this new reading room soon!  I enjoyed the open house last weekend very much, and will cherish my chance to actually walk through the stacks of the Phillips Library and linger over the section with boxes and boxes of family papers.

For the truly curious:

My blog post about the Phillips Library open house: 

Robin Mason's blog post about the library: 


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Genealogy Research at the Phillips Library", Nutfield Genealogy, posted July 19, 2018, ( accessed [access date]).


  1. How exciting and informative! Thank you for sharing!

  2. thank you. Helps to be prepared in advance. This information will help when I travel to Massachusetts for information. I can check the address and hours ahead of time.