A Collection of Intellectual Capital

When the founders of what’s now known as the Peabody Essex Museum (P.E.M.) in Salem, Mass. – ship owners and sea captains all – began to amass their collection of rare items from the seven seas in 1799, they also stockpiled the books and manuscripts that would help the world understand their holdings.

“The East Indian Society was made up of captains who sailed around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope,” says Sidney Berger, director of the library and curator of an exhibit called Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at P.E.M. “Everywhere they stopped, they picked up treasures which became the basis of the museum’s collection.”

Today, the Phillips Library at P.E.M. provides researchers, curators, and the general public access to 400,000 printed volumes, over a mile of manuscript shelves, and an extensive collection of ephemera, broadsides, pamphlets, and a substantial run of periodicals.

On November 12, P.E.M. will unveil the exhibit of selected items of historical significance from the library’s collection, including a well-preserved leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, an 1863 Charles William Merrill bible pierced by a bullet still intact, and a first edition of “The Scarlet Letter” signed by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

“What we tried to do was pick out rare and beautiful pieces that would tell stories and delight the eye,” Berger says. “There are 35 very important pieces, but we could have done ten times as much.”

The exhibit’s intent is two-fold: to share with the public the treasures inside the library’s walls, and to raise awareness among the research and scholastic communities about the vast holdings inside the library.

“Librarianship is a service profession,” Berger says.  “It’s a powerful inspiration to have a mandate to help scholars, and that manifests itself in this exhibit.  Many of the users here are the curators of the museum who put on exhibits, but it’s important to note that the information here is available to anyone who wants to come and use it.”

The exhibit will run through November, 2012.

For more on the exhibit, go to http://pem.org/exhibitions/143-unbound_highlights_from_the_phillips_library_at_pem

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