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Phillips Library

Steeped in a tradition of curiosity and learning, the Phillips Library inspires new journeys.

Heir to the remarkably rich holdings of PEM’s ancestor institutions, the Phillips Library provides vital support to researchers at the museum, in our local and regional communities, and across the globe. Our vast collection, a large percentage of which is unique or rare, comprises books, manuscripts, archives, broadsides, and photography, as well as one of the largest assemblages of ships’ logbooks in the world. Anyone, of any age and level of interest, is welcome to visit our reading room to request and use our library materials.

From the museum’s origins as the East India Marine Society in 1799, a library has been at the core of the institution. By December 1801, the library recorded its first donations: a set of volumes based on documents from the ill-fated 1785–88 voyage of the French explorer Jean-François de Galaup, count of La Pérouse, and a ship’s journal documenting the first American vessel to sail to Japan. Soon after, in 1804, society members elected the famed scientist and navigator Nathaniel Bowditch as the first inspector of journals — in other words, our first librarian — a role he fulfilled until 1820.

Explore some highlights from the collection

Long-standing strengths of the collection, many of which have been shaped by generous donors throughout the institution’s history, are in maritime art, history, and trade; the history, culture, and genealogy of Salem, Essex County, and New England; natural history; China and Japan; Native American culture; and nineteenth-century literature. Edward Sylvester Morse — whose roles ranged from curator of mollusks, zoologist, ethnologist, and collector of Japanese ceramics to director of the Peabody Academy of Science — bequeathed his extensive set of papers on these and other subjects upon his death in 1925. Our comprehensive collection of over three thousand volumes by and about Salem-born novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne were donated by businessman and scholar C. E. Frazer Clark Jr. in 1983.

The Phillips Library is also the trusted repository of more than five hundred original documents from the 1692 Salem witch trials, placed on deposit with the Essex Institute in 1980 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Division of Archives and Records Preservation. In 2019, as part of the museum’s expansion, we opened a dedicated gallery for rotating displays of these and other holdings, and our staff works closely with museum curators to incorporate library materials into exhibitions and gallery installations.

We are fortunate to be less constrained by distance and geography than our predecessors, as technology enables us to expand access to our collections and transition in 2018 to PEM’s state-of-the-art Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Through these efforts, in conjunction with a renewed emphasis on public programming and meaningful engagement with our communities, the Phillips Library continues the tradition of curiosity and learning established here in 1799.

Learn more about the nation’s oldest collecting museum in the Peabody Essex Museum Guide. Available for purchase in the PEM Shop.

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