SALEM - The brickbats local historians tossed at the Peabody Essex Museum the past few years over cutbacks at Phillips Library, one of New England's major research institutions, turned into bouquets yesterday when the museum announced the hiring of a library director to a newly endowed position.
"The joy is spreading everywhere," said Bonnie Hurd Smith, former director of the Ipswich Historical Society. "You have no idea how happy people are."
"It's been long in coming," said Richard Trask, archivist for the town of Danvers. "I think it's really good news. Hopefully, it will mean the library will get back to being the leader it should be."
Sidney Berger, 62, a faculty member at Simmons College and a former curator at the American Antiquarian Society, was selected to be the first Ann C. Pingree director of the Phillips Library. He will begin his new post in June.
"Sid's background and expertise in library leadership, his breadth of scholarship and teaching experience ... make him a wonderful new addition to the museum," PEM Executive Director Dan Monroe said in a statement.
Berger, a Newton resident, will take over a library that is considered a regional treasure. It holds Salem witch trials papers, material on Nathaniel Hawthorne, documents on the China trade, genealogical records, and ship's charts and logbooks. It also is a repository of Essex County history.
"They just have scores of major collections that no one else can shine a candle to," said Trask, an expert on the witch trials.
In a brief interview yesterday, Berger said he is excited about coming to Salem.
"It's a fabulous library, and I'm absolutely thrilled to be part of it," he said. "I can't imagine anybody not wanting to be associated with a world-class library like this one."
The position was endowed by Charles Pingree and his family in memory of Pingree's late wife, Ann, a Marblehead resident and longtime volunteer at the library. She was a member of the museum's board of overseers and served on several committees.
"Ann Pingree was an extraordinary person who deeply loved the museum and the Phillips Library," Monroe said.
This appointment signals a "new vision" and expanded role for the library, Monroe said. Although major decisions will wait until Berger arrives and makes recommendations, Monroe said that "very likely we will be increasing staff."
This move, Monroe said, has been contemplated for a long time but had to wait until the PEM completed its recent expansion. During the interim, he said the museum continued to invest in the library and made significant improvements to the Essex Street building.
In the future, the library collections will be used more to enhance museum exhibits, visiting scholars will have new and expanded opportunities for research, and special programs and lectures will be generated by the Phillips Library, Monroe said.
"It's a much expanded vision for the library," he said.
The job of library director, which has not existed since before the 1992 merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum, will be a senior-level staff position and "a clear-cut indication of the role and importance of the library," Monroe said.
Berger previously headed the special collections department at the University of California at Riverside and was curator of printed books and curator of manuscripts at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. He has been on the faculty at Simmons for the past four years. He also is an author and lecturer in the field of library science.