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Will a bad economy wipe out Oregon history? Maybe.

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.

As a result, on Feb. 25, only a week after Oregon’s 150th birthday, the Society’s 45-person staff was cut by a third, with the preponderance coming in the research library. Remaining are the museum, traveling exhibits, a school program and access to the library’s film and photographs.

The research library was particularly vulnerable because its clientele, primarily professional and amateur historians, writers and genealogists, are seldom wealthy people with the ability to make major contributions. Many are also accustomed to services from public institutions, primarily university research libraries, for which they are not required or solicited to pay. Often deliberately eschewing the world of business and finance, scholars are poorly equipped for fundraising; that’s why universities have large foundations and alumni-relations offices and depend so heavily on public funds. OHS has depended on its director and volunteer trustees, heavily committed business and professional people, and in today’s competitive fundraising climate that’s not sufficient.

The Society’s ambivalence isn’t new; it’s long been torn by the competing demands and audiences of its museum and its research facilities. “We are in a constant fundraising mode, and balancing that mode as to what you want the place to be,” notes Herman. “And quite frankly, a lot of those folks (the protesters) don’t appreciate or care much about the museum, and a lot of museum backers aren’t crazy about the library.”

Put another way, when times are good, the competing missions co-exist, but hard times bring hard choices. Friends of the research library fear that the trustees will use the economic recession to close the library and sell off its assets, despite board pledges of support.

Herman’s blunt analysis of the factional split reflects a problem that confronts quasi-public agencies throughout the Northwest, as funding gets tight and trustees are forced to define the core mission that will be funded. There will be enormous pressure to support those functions that are best able to pay back, often from wealthy patrons who are graduates, or in a field that directly benefits. It will be a rare university that will trim its business or law or medical school rather than its department of languages, philosophy or classics. Trustees are usually from the world of business, and are picked for their ability to raise funds rather than ponder the fate of the humanities.

Thse agencies and institutions have broad state mandates that come with more direction than financial support. Trustees will pick those elements that attract donors; less-sexy missions such as the collection and filing of old documents, personal papers of community leaders and records of private institutions are so yesterday in today’s society, yet vital to any credible historical research. The teaching of history has been downgraded from kindergarten through college, and repeated surveys show an appalling lack of basic historical knowledge on the part of supposedly educated people.

Ironically, OHS has recently made huge strides in computerizing its library catalog, but it is the nature of original materials that they must be reviewed on site. A research collection seldom circulates.

The shaky backing for the research function has already prompted its backers to begin thinking of other options, primarily partnership or even transfer to a major state university. OHS is two blocks from Portland State University, and there is also a large library and history program at the University of Oregon. The century-old Oregon Historical Quarterly is also an OHS function, but has its own endowment, which might keep it at the Society.

The OHS research collection is, literally, priceless and irreplaceable, and despite public funding at various levels over the years, it does remain the property of a private, nonprofit institution. Acquisition by the state, for amalgamation into a university or the state archives or library, would require a large up-front purchase and an annual commitment for maintenance, staffing and acquisitions.

It would be far cheaper to inject a reasonable amount of state funding into the OHS research facility on a guaranteed annual basis. But legislators and governors come and go, as do OHS trustees, and this year’s experience shows that the state’s collected heritage can be very vulnerable.

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