SALEM — The state Attorney General’s Office is reviewing Peabody Essex Museum’s move of historical Salem documents from the Phillips Library to the museum’s Collection Center in Rowley.
Attorney General Maura Healey and other state attorneys met Monday with local advocates for the library to discuss the research library’s relocation.
“At the meeting, the attorney general and her staff had an opportunity to hear from leaders in the community about the importance of the Phillips Library to Salem and the need to preserve public access to the collection,” said Alex Bradley, a spokesman for Healey’s office.
The meeting comes a year and a half after Salem residents and historians decried the plan to move out of the city books and documents related to early Salem history, including court records from the Salem witchcraft trials. The museum maintains there have been no local options for ethically preserving the full extent of the Phillips Library collection, which contains more than 400,000 volumes and “more than a linear mile of manuscripts” built up over the span of two centuries.
Donna Seger, chairperson of Salem State University’s history department, said the debate centers on a charter from 1821 that established a geographical restriction for the library. Part of the review is to determine whether the museum’s plans for the library would require approval from the state attorney general.
“Rowley is just too distant,” Seger said. “The collection is just huge. I understand where they’re coming from (with preservation), but I think in terms of usability — and they’re indeed interested in access, which they seem to be showing signals that they are — they would indeed want to move the library back to Salem.”
The attorney general’s review is being led in part by the office’s nonprofit and public charities division. It’s focused not on how the collection ended up in Rowley, but whether it should stay there, according to Healey’s office.
Representatives of Peabody Essex Museum were not present Monday. The AG’s Office said a similar meeting with museum officials will take place once new museum director and CEO Brian Kennedy starts next week.
In a statement, the museum said that the “process of working with the attorney general’s office is moving forward as expected.”
“We look forward to continuing along with this process and will wait to hear from the attorney general’s office about next steps,” the museum said.
The Phillips Library facility on Essex Street closed in 2011 for repairs, at which time the materials were made available through a “reading room” in Peabody. But by the end of 2017, plans to return the library to Salem were discarded in the interest of relocating them to Rowley, where the museum was building a $15 million collection center. At the center, the museum said it could provide better access to the collection and preserve it in sensitive, climate-controlled conditions.
The collection center, which also houses the museum’s full exhibit collection and resources, opened last July.
In April 2018, Hawthorne Hotel owner Michael Harrington asked Healey’s office to investigate, saying the library was “removed from the city of Salem, despite the fact that these materials were donated on condition that the corporation’s collections be kept in the city.”
There had been no word since about the collection’s fate until Monday’s meeting.
Seger, who wants the collection to return to Salem, was at the meeting. She said Mayor Kim Driscoll, state Rep. Paul Tucker, state Sen. Joan Lovely, and Danvers historian Richard Trask were also in attendance.
“It was a great meeting,” she said. “She (Healey) listened to us very carefully, brought four attorneys, and she really took us very seriously.”
Driscoll and Tucker both declined to comment on the attorney general’s review, although Tucker said local officials “continue to work on the best possible outcome for Salem.”
The library launched in 1799 as the East India Marine Library and expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries through the Essex Institute. When the institute merged with the Peabody Museum of Salem in 1992, the newly created Peabody Essex Museum absorbed the library.