Subject Strengths

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Subject Strengths

Manuscript Collections

The Phillips Library’s collections of research material are especially strong in the period before 1860, mostly as the result of donations by concerned and committed members and local residents.

The library has been especially praised for holdings in the following major areas:

  • Art and Architecture
  • Essex County
  • Maritime History and Art
  • Natural History
  • New England
  • Voyages and Travels
  • Asia
  • Oceania
  • Native American Culture

In addition, there are smaller, gemlike holdings of:

  • Belles Lettres and Popular Literature
  • Religious Life and Doctrine
  • Travel Literature and Geography
  • Reform Literature
  • New England Crafts
  • Trade Catalogs and Business Advertising
  • Juvenile Literature
  • Cookbooks
Art and Architecture

With a long institutional history in American traditional arts such as furniture, needlework and toys, the library collections reflect a concentration in these areas, as well as the arts of Asia, the Pacific, and Africa.

Architectural materials support research for the period houses on campus, as well as the Asian, Oceanic, Pacific, and maritime departments. Samuel McIntire, William G. Rantoul, and Josiah Fox are among the architects whose works are represented in manuscript.

In addition, the deposit of the Vose Database of Artists has made possible research in 20th century American artists, especially those obscure artists who had New England connections.

Essex County

The library has hosted researchers who have produced significant publications related to the lives and contributions of prominent Essex County residents such as Nathaniel Bowditch, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lucy Larcom, Samuel McIntire, Edward Sylvester Morse, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, George Peabody, Joseph Story, and John Greenleaf Whittier, as well as the Crowninshield, Derby, Hemenway, Peabody and Phillips families and the daily lives of preachers, printers, sailors, and tradesmen.

Genealogists looking for roots in Essex County and New England find the collections of the Phillips Library rich in documents. In addition to published genealogies and genealogical publications, the library holds published vital records for many Massachusetts towns and cities, most from settlement through 1850, as well as long runs of local municipal directories. Microfilm files of Essex County probate records (1638-1914) are indexed. Essex County newspapers are not. A deposition from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of the records of the Essex County Quarterly Court, General Sessions of the Pleas, and Court of Common Pleas provides a wealth of material available to those seeking to trace their families, although only the Quarterly Court records to 1686 are indexed.

Those with an interest in Massachusetts local history may utilize town histories, Essex County newspapers, diaries, and family histories. Court records; sermons; music; diaries; account books; family papers; business papers; correspondence; logbooks; maps: the list of methods of recording Essex County and New England daily life is endless. These paper documents survive to provide a picture of the culture that produced the merchants and mariners who circled the globe. They also demonstrate the changing local environment that was the result of accumulated new riches, experiences and objects.

The library’s best known holdings are undoubtedly the records of the special 1692 Court of Oyer and Terminer, better known as the 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials.

Maritime History and Arts

Whether in printed books or manuscript letters, logbooks or nautical charts, the sea is a constant backdrop to the collections that have developed from the early curios amassed by the museum’s founding mariners. The collections of the library present a detailed picture of the global nature of commercial outreach by Essex County residents during the region’s “golden age” of shipping in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Logbooks are supplemented by merchant account books, shipbuilder’s records and complete records of the Newburyport Federal customhouse from 1789 to 1910, as well as the customhouse records from Salem and Marblehead on microfilm. Printed records of travels and exploration to the Pacific, to find the Northwest Passage, or circumnavigate the globe, reside beside evidence of the accomplishments of naval architects who engaged in a search for speed under sail. Yachts and fighting ships are also documented in maritime collections that are strong in pre-20th century works.

Maritime historians have utilized the manuscript and printed materials to increase mankind’s understanding of clipper ships, marine architecture, privateering, whaling, oceanographic archaeology, and ship building as well as for in-depth studies of the frigate Essex, ship Grand Turk, and yacht Cleopatra’s Barge.

In addition to manuscript materials, maritime holdings consist of long runs of ship registers, New York and Boston shipping lists, and complete runs of Blunt’s Coast Pilot and Bowditch’s Practical Navigator.

The founding mariners who sailed beyond the Horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope did so with nautical charts and books which they updated as they sailed. These daily working tools are represented in the collections of the Phillips Library. In addition to complete runs of Blunt’s Coast Pilot and Bowditch’s Practical Navigator, the researcher has at his disposal charts representing the New England coast, the Pacific coast, Asian and African coasts, and Europe. These supplement the library’s papers of Nathaniel Bowditch, as well as the nautical instruments found in the Maritime Department.

Natural History

The focus of the natural history collection is Essex County, although there are materials on the natural history of other areas of the world, especially Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. Of particular interest are the monographs and illustrated volumes on ornithology, botany and geology, many of which date from the nineteenth century.

Manuscripts supplement the printed materials, and are to be found in the Edward Sylvester Morse and Ludlow Griscom collections. In addition, the library holds the papers of the Essex County Ornithological Club and those of the American Naturalist.

New England

Expanding beyond Essex County, the library maintains substantial collections of state, county, and town histories for all the New England states. Published family histories and genealogies are not limited to Essex County, but include family branches settling in all the New England states, and reaching as far west as Ohio.

Manuscript and printed materials demonstrate the impact of local residents in pre-20th century New England politics, economics, religion, reform movements, and transportation. In addition, the holdings document the role of New Englanders in national history, their involvement in the Revolutionary War, the westward expansion, the Civil War, and the growth of global trade.

Voyages and Travels

The Stephen Phillips collection of voyages and travels includes first or early editions of all of the major voyages of discovery and exploration, such as the publications of Hakluyt, the voyages of the Beagle and the Bounty, as well as those of Burney, Cook, Flinders, and Wilkes.

Printed accounts of public voyages are complemented by manuscript logbooks of private voyages. The log of Cleopatra’s Barge (the first oceangoing yacht) is available, as well as that of the barkentine Capitana that retraced the voyages of Columbus.


The merchant sailors who established the Peabody Essex Museum also established close personal relations with the Chinese merchants with whom they did business. Books, newspapers, logbooks, account books, and diaries in the library’s collections demonstrate every facet of this economic and cultural exchange. As a result, the library proudly houses the Frederick Townsend Ward China Collection, one of the world’s outstanding collections of Western-language materials on Imperial China.

Logbooks in the library demonstrate Salem contacts with Japan as early as 1801. From the opening of Japan to American trade, through the wealth of material in the Edward Sylvester Morse archives, to the Japanese craze at the end of the 19th century, the library holds a treasure-trove of Japanese materials.


Traders, missionaries, and whalers recorded their experiences in the logbooks, diaries and account books held in the Phillips Library. Printed accounts supplement their travels and provide a record of vanished cultures.

The library is especially strong in documentation of Hawaiian life and culture. Nineteenth century volumes contain views of Hawaii and Hawaiians, and the collection holds an impressive collection of early Hawaiian imprints.

Native American Culture

Printed works on indigenous American culture are augmented by long runs of the publications of the Smithsonian Institution and its Bureau of American Ethnology. These printed reports are supplemented by missionary accounts of work on the American frontier, as that frontier was pushed further and further westward. The E. Tappan Adney Collection and other manuscript holdings augments the printed reports.