SALEM — Leigh Cochran and Fred Freeman stood in the cold outside the Peabody Essex Museum last week, speaking to people on their way in to the monthly after-hours party and trying to drum up support for their "Save the Phillips Library" effort.
They heard things like "I'm following it on Facebook" and "thank you for what you're doing" from those rushing inside, where several hundred ugly sweater-wearing celebrants filled the atrium and a brass-powered swing band echoed through the halls.
"I'm just concerned that there should be something to read from the Phillips Library," Cochran said. "Library documents like the Witch Trials and maritime history should be on the premises."
'Saving the library'
Ask museum leaders what they want, however, and they say exactly the same thing the advocates are saying: to "save the Phillips Library."
The two sides have very different ideas, however, over how to save the library and its 400,000 historical documents, manuscripts, books and ledgers.
Museum officials shocked the region in early December when they announced, at a meeting of the Historic Commission to discuss renovations to the former Phillips Library buildings, that the library itself wouldn't be returning there. Instead, the building would be used for staff offices with minimal, if any, public access, and the library's collections would be moved, along with other museum artifacts, to a new collection center in Rowley.
Many local historians were infuriated.
Dan Monroe, the museum's director and CEO, acknowledges there was an issue with the way that information got out.
"We were simply not at a point in that hearing where we had actually fully finished exploring that," Monroe said. "I can understand people being upset at the notion that none of those parts of those buildings would be accessible ... but, in fact, they will be."
Rowley is the future
There's one thing to make clear at this point: Rowley is still the future home of the Phillips Library, according to Monroe.
"Fundamentally, we ended up with a situation in which there really were no viable choices," he said. "There was no place to bring the library collection back to those stacks."
By moving it, Monroe said, the Peabody Essex Museum is saving the Phillips Library.
The process started in 2011, when a $19 million gift to the Phillips Library provided a massive shot in the arm for the museum. Of that, more than $2 million went toward digitizing the library's contents, about $9 million was set aside to restore its two historic buildings, and about $8 million was earmarked for staffing.
The work was due to wrap up in 2013, but instead, the building stayed closed. The project derailed, museum officials said, when it was determined that the storage area for the library — some call it a stack, others an annex — could not meet building codes. The entryways are too narrow, and the building is made of steel and too hard to renovate.
"It became eventually clear that there's no way to make the annex building that was built in the '60s for library storage code-compliant," Monroe said. "The way in which the annex was constructed was very idiosyncratic. Instead of being a regularly constructed building, it's actually a steel framework."
Beyond that, the entire building would need to be built with climate controls to preserve the documents, some of which are hundreds of years old. That would require new roof work and complete reconstruction of the building's exterior to provide a climate-protective membrane — things that Monroe said are outside the scope of what can be done to a historic building.
Instead, the museum began searching for a new storage facility. Given construction costs, building from scratch was quickly ruled out, and no existing museum property fit the bill. Earlier this year, the museum acquired an old toy factory in Rowley as part of a $15 million project to buy the site and turn it into the museum's new collection center.
The library's still here
"We're calling it a collection center because of all the activities around managing a museum collection that are taking place there," said John Childs, the library's new director and chief of collection services for the museum. "That's going to include a large conservation lab devoted to the care of both museum collections and library collections."
The $2.2 million spent on digitizing created the existing catalog of library items, but work to actually digitize each piece will continue in the new facility's photo studio. Processing rooms will be set aside document handling, and the public will have access to literally each piece of the library collection through expanded walk-in hours and by appointment.
That will all be supported by seven staff members, two more than the current five staffers. They're paid for by the $8 million staff fund from years earlier, which generates interest and pays for those staff through an endowment at a rate of about $400,000 a year, according to Monroe.
The museum has also committed to keeping some materials in Salem (staff offices will fill out the rest of the building), and — unlike what the Historical Commission was told earlier this month — full public access will be available during all business hours.
Several people, including historian Donna Seger of Salem State University and Peabody Essex Museum facilities director Bob Monk, are working together to determine which materials most meaningful to the city of Salem will be kept in the city.
Still, the bulk of the materials, particularly those requiring climate-controlled conditions, will be moved to Rowley. What will be in Salem, in the end, will still be just a sliver of the entire collection.
That is unavoidable, Monroe said, but added that the concept of access isn't changing much.
"For many people, it has always meant you have to drive to access the collections," Monroe said. "That hasn't changed — it just means there are some more people who have to drive, whereas in the past, you didn't."
That's the cost, Monroe said, of saving the library.
"What we're doing for the library vastly exceeds anything that had ever been done before, throughout the entire history," Monroe said. "'Save the library' is one way, I guess, to talk about this."