Last week closed with nearly all of the research librarians and archivists at the 110-year-old Oregon Historical Society picking up their personal effects and exiting into the crisp March air. The newly unemployed staff were greeted by almost 100 Oregon historians and friends of the archives in a hastily organized protest across from the library in the Portland Park Blocks.
There was cold comfort for the crowd when John Herman, president of the board of trustees of the nonprofit library and museum, announced that earlier in the day funds had been authorized to hire back two of the 11 dismissed library staff, leaving the library with 4.5 staff to maintain, at least until the end of May, limited public access to its acres of documents, papers and books.
Herman, a longtime Portland industrialist, developer and investment banker, told a skeptical crowd that the OHS board has no intention of closing the library and archives, but had little choice if it was to protect the museum functions of the Society, which serve a much larger clientele. The research library, he told me later, has a limited clientele and has been least able to attract donations from individuals or foundations.
In the crowd was Tom Vaughan, who directed the society for 35 years, beginning in 1954, and put together much of the research collection and museum. Mounting a makeshift soapbox with aid of a cane, Vaughan in his resonant baritone attempted to at once assure and challenge the group, but in reality the research arm of the Society has been on hard times since his departure in 1989.
Janice Dilg, who organized the rally for Northwest Historians Network, believes announcement of the rally prompted the OHS trustees to re-fill the two positions and call a "listening session" for constituents. As of Wednesday, an NHN online petition had more than 600 names.
I was in the protest crowd; the OHS research library saw me through two books, a Ph.D. dissertation and several journal articles and papers as I transitioned from news to academics. My heart is with the library mission; I am not an unbiased observer.
Lacking a secure public funding source, the library over the years has lost out on private funding as Portland's pioneer families dispersed and many of the businesses they owned were picked up by out-of-state corporations with little interest in Oregon's history. Glitzier, more-popular cultural attractions, particularly a rejuvenated Oregon Art Museum and an expanded theater scene became the places for new Oregonians to invest and be seen. Traditional state support of OHS was halted several years ago, and, gradually, services of the Historical Society were cast aside to save the core of the institution.
First to go were a vigorous oral history project and the Society press, the major publisher of books on Oregon history. Next were reductions of the hours the research library was open. George Vogt, OHS director since 2006, inherited a budget deficit and was forced to cut staff. But he was able to convince the 2007 Oregon Legislature to appropriate $2.4 million over a two-year period that ends this year, and many of the cuts were reversed and the research library expanded its hours to 32 per week.
Until fall of last year, Herman says, the Society was on a balanced budget and with continued state support would have avoided draconian cuts. Then the nation's financial meltdown hit OHS-and other similar institutions — with multiple shocks. The Society's endowment income plummeted, private donations dropped and the state began to look at places to cut its budget. Already, the state has taken back $360,000 of its April payment, Herman notes.
The level of state support for 2009-11 probably won't be known before June, but the Society is braced for a major reduction. One possible source of help, a cultural trust funded by purchase of special car-license plates, may be raided by the Legislature in defiance of pledges to use the funds for agencies such as OHS.
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