The Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum is the current incarnation of several institutions that over many years adapted to their changing world through programmatic shifts, name changes, and mergers. The earliest formal recognition of a library was with the East India Marine Society, founded in 1799. Among the first documented acquisitions of the EIMS were “The Art of Medicine Among the Chinese,” dated 1741, copies of voyages by Cook and La Perouse, as well as other maritime-related material.
In 1867, the EIMS became the Peabody Academy of Science. Among its formal governing principles was the establishment of “a working library” for which “the practical execution of the plan, and the collection of the necessary books should be an object of the first importance.” One of the first recorded donations to the library of the new PAS organization was “How to Work with the Microscope,” by Lionel S. Beale, 1868, 4th edition.
By 1915, it became apparent that the PAS had matured from its roots as an academy devoted to science into a museum with broader collecting interests and cultural commitments, thus prompting a name change to the Peabody Museum of Salem. A new corporate seal was adopted depicting the museum's three areas of interest - ethnology, natural history, and maritime history. It was soon recognized that expanded library space was greatly needed and the Stephen Phillips Library was constructed in Plummer Hall (1857) with funds from Stephen Phillips; the reading room was named for the Saltonstall family.
On a parallel track, in 1821, the Essex Historical Society was established “to collect and preserve all authentic memorials relating to the civil history of the county of Essex, and the eminent men who have been inhabitants of it from its first settlement, as well as all facts relating to its natural history and topography.” This was followed in 1836 with the formation of a related but different organization, the Essex County Natural History Society. ECNHS operated in modest obscurity until 1848 when it merged with the Essex Historical Society; the new entity took the name “Essex Institute,” combining both museum and library collections. Over the next 20 years, the library collection grew to approximately 50,000 bound volumes including, “A large and daily increasing collection of the works of the authors of Essex county, both native and resident, already counting about six hundred volumes. Full files of newspapers… Some eight thousand volumes of English, Greek and Latin classics… a collection of some three hundred Bibles and parts of Bibles of curious antiquity, including one…dated before the discovery of America in the year 1486…”
In 1992, the Peabody Museum merged with the Essex Institute, combining their respective libraries to form what we now know as the Phillips Library. The present collection covers a broad range of subjects, in both print and manuscript form, and it actively serves constituents from all corners of the globe.