Digitized documents cannot take place of studying the real thing
Thank you for your Jan. 28 editorial “Don’t slight witch trial history.” I was saddened to hear that the Peabody Essex Museum had moved the original witch trial manuscripts out of Salem and into storage. The availability of digitized online access to the documents is a boon to scholars of the trials, but it does not take the place of being able to see the original documents.
Years ago I took the students from my Boston University course, “The History of Witchcraft and Magic,” to Salem to experience “Witch City” and to view the original manuscripts at the Peabody Essex Museum. There is something magical about seeing an original document, not a copy, not online, but in front of you. This is true for all important historical documents. The original manuscripts, or at least a rotating selection, should be on display at the local museum. Now, possibly more than any other time in our history since the trials ended, we need to be reminded of what can happen when religious imagery and fanaticism are intertwined with civil laws.
The writer is the author of four books on contemporary witchcraft.
Peabody Essex damaging its reputation
Years of restricted access and inattention to its world-important library and archival resources, and recent building closings, are in the process of doing considerable damage to the intellectual reputation of the Peabody Essex Museum. Packing these treasures off to Rowley won’t help.
Research in the museum’s fields of interest did not slow down as the PEM turned its attention elsewhere. Fruitful work went on and continues to go on, but more elsewhere, illuminating other collections. In the future, the Phillips Library resources will be more remote. It will take more money and time to reach them, especially for scholars who must travel far to use these collections. The notion that these holdings are so glorious that people will come no matter how restricted they have been or how remote they may become is hubris. At other institutions, important archival materials are now commonly stored off-site and brought on short notice to a reading room at a convenient location. The notion that a chasm lies between preservation and access, and that one trumps the other, is nonsense. Archives are preserved to be used.
Scholars will continue to go where their means, research grant funding, and available time permit. It is tragic that PEM management does not see that its restrictions harm it, too, by removing it from conversations, by causing less light to be thrown on its own collections, by making it irrelevant.