Library \\ Collections

Subject Strengths

The collection range of the Phillips Library is diverse. While its roots are imbedded in the local, maritime history of Massachusetts, the global reach of the founders and the early collectors who built this library ensured that it would represent so much more than that.


Our resources highlight New England’s importance as one of the nation’s earliest settled areas and connect our nation’s past to cultures around the world. Materials in our print and manuscript collections capture the history of early America, material culture, foreign relations, and international trade and commerce. For example, our maritime materials document five centuries of exploration and discovery, including manuscripts from the region’s golden age of shipping and trade in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Covering every aspect of life at sea, ships sighted, foreign ports, trade, and cargo, many of our maritime collections also hold remarkable works of art, including original sketches and watercolor paintings.

The Peabody Essex Museum is known for its extensive collection of Asian art, and the library reinforces this strength with substantial holdings that connect the institution to that region of the globe. Our Frederick Townsend Ward Collection has been described as the world’s largest Western language collection on the history of Imperialist China. We hold logbooks, account books, diaries, and photo albums that demonstrate every facet of the economic and cultural exchange between the West and the East. The Phillips Library is also home to the papers of Edward Sylvester Morse, the “father of Japanese archaeology,” whose contributions to the library also include holdings in natural history and zoology.

As the Peabody Essex Museum has changed over its tenure as the nation’s oldest continuously operating museum, so too has the Phillips Library with development of subject strengths in the domain of visual arts. PEM’s mission to inspire the public by fusing art, culture, and history in innovative ways is supported by more recent efforts of the Phillips Library to enhance its collections with strong research materials in architecture, painting, illustration, design, and decorative arts. Almost 25% of the library’s collection of published books focuses on art due to recent acquisitions and collections placed on deposit. Within our manuscript collections, we hold materials from notable art and design figures such as Frank Weston Benson, Samuel McIntire, and William G. Rantoul. The works of art disbursed throughout the galleries of the museum find a scholarly backbone in the collections of the Phillips Library.