SALEM — The Phillips Library has been closed since 2011, and now it appears it will no longer be open to the public or house the city's historic records.
Representatives of Peabody Essex Museum went before the city's Historical Commission Wednesday to unveil plans for renovating the library on Essex Street. The building formerly housed the museum's extensive collection of books and manuscripts.
The renovation work will remove portions of the overall building that were added in 1966, as well as a porch and shed in the back. At the front entrance, steps will be replaced with a handicapped-accessible ramp that is shielded by a "highly transparent glass curtainwall."
But much of the discussion focused on the library's collection and why most of it won't return to Salem. Once the work is complete, museum officials said, the library will primarily be used as office space. The collection will remain in a facility in Rowley.
"I just have a real concern that you spent three years planning this, and we're just hearing about this," said Joanne McRea, a member of the commission. "It seems to be seeping away from the original mission of the Peabody Essex."
The museum first announced its plans to modernize the Essex Street library in 2011. The project that was expected to wrap up in 2013. At the time, a public relations manager for the museum said the investment would guarantee the preservation of the library's 400,000 volumes and "more than a linear mile of manuscripts" acquired over the span of two centuries.
After the collections were moved out, the library stayed closed. And as time went on, the museum planned — and launched — a massive expansion west of the East India Marine Hall. It also bought and started renovating a roughly 120,000-square-foot storage facility in Rowley to house its library and museum collections.
"The library collections have been stored inadequately for generations at this point, and the same has been for the museum collections," project architect John Traficonte said. "When we sought to find a facility for this, as we did, we extensively looked in Salem, in Peabody, surrounding areas, and the best building we could find available was up in Rowley."
"Don't you think the Phillips Library should have some books and paper in it?" someone in the audience asked.
"There will be some books and paper in the Phillips Library," facilities director Bob Monk said, "but the major bulk of the collection won't be there."
The plan is for the library to house museum offices — Monk said 36 museum staffers are temporarily working out of office space at 10 Federal St.
Many who spoke Wednesday night were against the collection staying in Rowley.
"I used to use the Essex Institute Library years ago, quite frequently," said commission Chairman Jessica Herbert. "The fact that it isn't available — and hasn't been for years — is a huge problem. I don't think the museum's collection should supersede the importance and availability of books, and the idea that the book collection is in Rowley, but that it isn't really that accessible for regular people to use, is a problem."
"It seems to me, now, you have not only excluded us from these buildings — which are part of Salem's history — you have taken away our collections as well, because Rowley isn't accessible," said Robin Woodwin of the Salem Historical Society. "The Phillips Library is a world-renowned research library, and to have scholars come to town and have to go to Rowley to access them and not have them in Salem is insulting to all of us."
Others took issue with the proposed glass wall in front, saying its appearance was too modern in an otherwise historic block of Salem.
"You've got historic homes that aren't accessible. So what are we going to do there, when we want to make them accessible?" said local resident Keith Crook. "Are we going to add a glass box to them too?"
Reached by phone Thursday, Monk said the meeting "didn't go quite as planned. Our intent on it was to be about architecture, and we got word just prior to the meeting that there was a lot of social media activity surrounding the collections."
In response, Monk said the museum plans to hold a meeting, most likely by mid-January to discuss the library's future with residents.
"One of the things we heard loud and clear last night is that the public is interested and they want to offer input, and we're certainly amenable to receiving that input," he said. "We think the best thing to do would be to put some facts out there for people to digest in advance of having a public forum here at the museum, open to the public for anyone to come ask further questions and offer further input."
Those facts, Monk said, include details about the collection, how large it is and what is most commonly used by the public.
He also strongly denied rumors that suggest the museum is looking to sell parts of its collection, saying that the selling of items would be a violation of the public trust.
The focus going forward, Monk said, is how to make the library collection more open to public inspection and use.
"Our goal here is, really, to make the collections actually more accessible," he said, "not less."
Editor's note: Joanne McCrea and Jessica Herbert were incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story