Friends of Salem's Phillips Library
In decades past, a Friends of the Phillips Library group—consisting of scholars, educators, researchers, book lovers, descendants of donor families, business owners, and interested and engaged residents of Salem and its environs—supported the core mission of the Phillips Library “to collect and preserve materials for the civil and natural history of Essex County and for the advancement of the arts, literature, and science generally.” Recent developments necessitated the revival of the Friends of Salem's Phillips Library.
Since collections started in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) now owns more than 1.8 million museum objects and artifacts, more than 400,000 books, and a linear mile of manuscripts and papers. Over the last 25 years, the Peabody Essex has become one of the fastest growing art museums in the country. With its robust donation campaigns increasing its physical footprint, the Peabody Essex searched for space for a new PEM Collections Center to hold museum objects and artifacts currently in temporary storage and not on display at its museum on Essex Street in Salem. That way, the physical collection finally would be under one roof for curators and conservators to plan new exhibits and preserve priceless objects. At the same time, Plummer Hall and Daland House were being refurbished, with “climate control and modern archival storage,” for the Phillips Library collections.
For 20 years, we watched and waited as the library was closed, reopened, moved off-site to a temporary facility, reopened, and closed again. (Read about the evolution of PEM and the library closures.)
In March 2017 the Peabody Essex Museum purchased a warehouse one-third larger than its anticipated needs. And with that, its directors quietly decided Plummer Hall and Daland House would be allocated for office space instead of a showcase setting for its world-renowned Phillips Library.
At a Salem Historic Commission meeting in December 2017, PEM leadership revealed that after 20 years of closures and renovations at Plummer Hall and Daland House, the Phillips Library collections would be moved from their permanent home in Salem, Massachusetts, to the new PEM Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts.
Salem is Passionate about its History
Phillips Library belongs in Salem, in the midst of the historical landscape that created its collections. To this end, the Friends seek to partner with the PEM in developing a more active stewardship of our library, inspired by and reflective of the dynamic urban environment of greater Salem, and expressive of the belief that its collections are valuable assets rather than mere obligations. We believe that the library’s collections are central to fulfilling the PEM’s mission “to inspire the public by fusing art, culture, and history in innovative ways,” but for this fusion to occur, it must remain in Salem. For as Salem served as the port that fostered so many cross-cultural connections in the 18th and 19th centuries, the library should serve as the point of access for those curious about these connections and their ongoing impact.
In our advocacy role, we honor the intent of donors who gifted papers and possessions to an institution situated in the heart of historic Salem, on its oldest street, in a building built by funds donated by the great Salem philanthropist Caroline Plummer, and with the expectation that their gifts would remain here. Indeed, Plummer herself specified that Plummer Hall should always serve as a place for collections and never “as a public or private office of business.”
The Peabody Essex Museum has the resources to keep its earlier promises to library patrons. While the collection is being properly cared for and fully accessible to researchers in Rowley, work must continue to make its home in the historic Plummer Hall and Daland House in Salem fitted with proper preservation and climate controls in place. We know it’s possible. We are eager to support this effort in whatever ways possible. Given the PEM’s extraordinary abilities to make things happen—to encompass a city street within a building and relocate an 18th-century Chinese house 7,500 miles away from its original site—as well as its considerable resources, we have confidence in its ability to find a way to return the Phillips Library to the community that cherishes it.
The 400th-anniversary celebrations of the founding of Salem are coming in 2026. We want to invite the world to view the Phillips Library's treasured collections once again inside Plummer Hall and Daland House in Salem.
Celebrating Salem Today
While we hope the move is temporary, we strongly urge people to use the Rowley facilities to show their interest and support for the Phillips Library collections.
While we continue to advocate for the return of the Phillips Library to Salem, we are also eager to support and provide guidance for several initiatives that came out of the Working Group meetings, including the commitment of the Peabody Essex Museum to:
designate a new gallery for the Phillips Library collection in the new wing at the main PEM campus that will allow materials and artifacts from the collection to be regularly on display
create an exhibit and experience using multimedia, objects, works of art, and documents that celebrate Salem's history in the Grand Hall on the second floor of Plummer Hall
determine priorities for the order in which Phillips Library materials are digitized
carry out numerous museum education and other programs and activities in Plummer Hall spaces
make Plummer Hall accessible to the public during regular museum open hours, including the Saltonstall Reading Room, fitted with workstations that provide free online access to digital Phillips Library materials without paywalls and fees
maintain history books and historical publications produced by the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem, plus historical materials and publications PEM has produced, including extensive information on the museum's large and important collection of historic buildings, in the Saltonstall Reading Room
provide a voucher program to help provide transport for Salem residents who wish to use the Phillips Library and find it difficult or impossible to drive to Rowley
Why the Rooster?
The rooster weathervane was purchased by Richard Derby to adorn Salem's meeting house. It was mentioned multiple times in the diaries of Rev. William Bentley.
The weathervane was affixed to "the East Church, whose spire was raised in 1771. From the Church, it became the ornament of the Bentley School in Salem, built in 1861, and in 1953 it was presented to the Institute by the City of Salem." - Essex Institute Historical Collections
The rooster represents the relationship between the City of Salem and the Essex Institute,
the previous stewards of the Phillips Library.