On March 13 over 80 historians, archivists, librarians, filmmakers, authors, students and others interested in the future of Oregon history rallied in the Park Blocks across from the Oregon Historical Society. When we organized the rally, we chose a bit of historical theater, mounting a soapbox to proclaim our purposes, but our intent was serious and our tone somber. A treasured public asset, the entire contents of the Oregon Historical Society research library, was being removed from public access, the professional staff that made use of that material possible laid off, and the future of historical research and production of historical works relevant to Oregon was cast into doubt.
When those staff members left the research library that Friday, they took with them more than 100 years of collective institutional memory. Anyone who has used the OHS research library can recount an instance where they would not have found what they needed or were led to a source they never would have thought of, without the knowledgable staff. This loss could not pass unnoticed; it will continue to reverberate with anyone who studies or teaches Oregon history.
The people losing access to Oregon’s history are not just the scholars and researchers who walk through the doors of the library. They include everyone who has ever read a book on Oregon history, an article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, or enjoyed a radio or television documentary based on research conducted in the OHS library. One striking example: the current Oregon Reads selection, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family would not exist had author Lauren Kessler not had access to Yasui family records housed at the OHS research library.
Because this closure has such wide ranging implications, the OHS administration and Trustees must be transparent about their decisions and plans for the future of the research library. The core mission of the Oregon Historical Society since 1899, according to its charter, has been: “for the purpose of collecting and preserving a library of historical literature . . . relative to the history of this state, . . . to hold all of its collections of material for the use and benefit of all the people of this state.” Tough times require tough decisions. Protecting the collections housed in the OHS research library and providing access to them must be the board’s top priority.
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