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The Phillips Library: Born in Salem, Mass.; Now Residing at Rowley

Portrait of Jacob Crowninshield
Jacob Crowninshield

I’m developing a novel based on the Crowninshield Family, seafarers and merchants based in Salem, Massachusetts during the late 18th century. The family was large and fractious, and the extent of their business dealings stretched from Europe to India to the Cape of Good Hope and numerous trading stops in-between. In an age lacking texts, email, or even a telephone, all communication was via letters. Some long, some short; some legible, some not so much. I, of course, wanted to read the relevant letters and journals. So, I went on a research trip to the Phillips Library, a repository for Salem and Essex County history that is part of the Peabody Essex Museum.

First, A Little Library History

Exterior of East India Marine Hall

First known as the East India Marine Society Library, the library was created in 1799, while Crowninshield men still sailed the seas. In 1848, this library collection merged with collections from the Essex Historical Society and the Essex County Natural History Society to form the Essex Institute. Meanwhile, another worthy institution founded as the Peabody Academy of Science became the Peabody Museum of Salem in 1915.

In 1992, the Peabody Museum merged with the Essex Institute creating the Peabody Essex Museum. Library resources were housed in Plummer Hall and Daland Hose, both located on Essex Street in Salem in the historic part of town, near the wharves constructed for early American merchant ships and privateers. Researchers interested in the institution’s collections of materials, including transcripts of the Salem Witch Trials, came to the library’s Saltonstall Reading Room from across the country. But in 2011, issues of preservation and renovation caused consternation and controversy.

The Problem

The building that housed the library collections was built in the 1960s and needed to be completely renovated with state-of-the-art climate controls to preserve documents over 100 years old. This required a new roof and extensive work on the exterior of the building to add a climate-protective membrane. The entryways were too narrow to meet current building codes. There was, according to museum officials, no way the annex building could be renovated to properly care for the over 400,000 books and 5,500 linear feet of manuscripts in a way that would insure their survival into the future.

In 2011, the Library Building on Essex Street closed for repairs. Researchers could request materials for review at a temporary reading room located in nearby Peabody. As far as anyone knew, the library would return to its Essex Street home. Renovations were due to conclude in 2013. The library remained closed.

Highway sign for PEM collection center

The Controversial Solution

In September 2017, the temporary reading room closed. In December, Peabody Essex Museum announced the Phillips Library would be moving to Rowley where the PEM had acquired a defunct toy factory as part of a $15 million project to create a 120,000 square foot Collection Center for the museum. Thirty thousand square feet would be dedicated to the Phillips Library.

Wait, various researchers and citizens argued, the PEM has no right to take the Phillips Library out of Salem. The Phillips Library, they said, was founded by Salem merchants to preserve Salem history. Families donated diaries, manuscripts and other materials with the understanding the items would remain in Salem. And besides, Rowley is slightly over 16 miles north of Salem.

PEM countered: there was nothing affordable or available in Salem that could accommodate and preserve over a linear mile of manuscripts. Also, the library was PEM’s responsibility.

PEM Collection Center

Opponents looked for a legal solution. An 1821 charter seemed to establish a geographical restriction to the library. The attorney general launched an investigation, and the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that PEM could move the Phillips Library to their Collection Center at Rowley to insure long term preservation and continued public access. In June 2018, The Phillips Library re-opened to the public. PEM says usage is about the same as it was before the library moved.

Historic house in Rowley

Though technically in Rowley, the Collection Center is located on the Newburyport Turnpike in an area known as Topsfield. While using the library facilities, I stayed in Rowley. Most people I encountered knew nothing about the Phillips Library. Likewise, staff at the Collection Center knew little about Rowley. This lack of connectedness is unfortunate, because the city and the PEM could easily develop mutually beneficial programs. In my opinion, this lack of interaction between the Collection Center and the community is a wasted opportunity to share Essex County history with people who live in the area.

Rowley is a small town with friendly people and a vibrant interest in maintaining its historic structures. More about the town and its unique history in the next blog.

📔 📕 📘


Portrait of Jacob Crowninshield by Robert Cutler Hinckley.

East India Marine Hall by David Adam Kess.

Other Photos by Author.

Dustin Luca. “Museum, Advocates Spar Over Library’s Future. Salem News. Dec. 25, 2017.

Dustin Luca. “High Court Sides with PEM.” Daily News. Nov. 4, 2020.

Andrea Shea. “As Library Moves to Rowley, Some Residents Tell PEM to Keep Historic Papers on Salem in Salem.” wbur. July 13, 2018.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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