Oral history no more

Facing a budget shortfall of about $1 million, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) has cut its oral history program, a key resource for recording Oregon’s history, according to former OHS employees.

Over its 28-year existence, the oral history program staff taught oral history while conducting more than 2,100 interviews, overseeing 8,400 recorded hours of tape and garnering praise as the largest oral history collection in the Pacific Northwest.

The OHS announced the suspension of the oral history program on July 1, and the suspension took effect on August 8, eliminating three paid and twelve volunteer positions.

The volunteer losses were especially critical for transcription, a time-intensive process requiring four or five hours of transcription per hour of recorded tape.

“At one point we had thirty-three volunteers and interns, students, graduate students, very capable people. We were all in the middle of projects. We had to close them up and walk away,” said Clark Hansen, an oral historian who lost his job in the suspension.

“The OHS has this huge, wonderful oral history collection. But right now the collection is like a ship without a rudder. It’s floating on the open sea, with no one to guide it, or access it, or take care of it,” Hansen added. “It’s headed towards a shipwreck.”

The suspension of the program resulted from the sudden loss of state and county funding. The OHS hasn’t received state funding since the start of the 2004 fiscal year, forcing the organization to turn entirely to private funding for support.

One and a half years ago OHS lost $300,000 from the failure of the Multnomah County Library Levy and also lost $650,000 from the State of Oregon.

With core expenses totaling about $4.5 million for OHS, the $1 million shortfall is a significant number.

The suspension makes Oregon “a state that is not doing its own history,” said Donna Sinclair, another of the oral historians who was laid off.

When asked why the oral history project was targeted for suspension, OHS Public Information Officer Ken Dubois said, “I can’t tell you why it was chosen over other programs. Somebody made a tough decision.” Executive director John Pierce declined to talk about how or why the choice was made.

The decision to suspend the project was also made without the knowledge of its staff.

“They also didn’t consult the oral history advisory board, who they had brought together for a year and a half and whose assessment they had accepted,” Hansen said.

Pierce also declined to discuss how much OHS saved by cutting the program, but did say that “it goes mostly to salaries.”

Sinclair estimated the figure to be around $60,000.

“Clark and I were part-time. A lot of the work that Clark was doing was under other projects, so OHS wasn’t even paying his full salary,” she said.

OHS struggling to meet needs

Since the suspension, OHS librarians are struggling to meet the needs of people who want to access the oral history project archives.

The OHS web site affirms its commitment to cataloging, maintaining and servicing the existing interviews in its research library. Yet library hours at OHS have already been reduced by budget cuts, the library staff is diminished and the oral history staff – those familiar with the collection – are gone.

“Nobody’s going to be there to suggest to researchers that they even look at the oral history collection,” said Katy Barber, professor of history at PSU. “The materials won’t be used as much.”

“The work done over the years is still available for use by the public,” said Dubois, pointing out that the OHS collection remains accessible despite the program’s suspension.

Dubois added that the OHS education technology initiative – a part of the current capital campaign – plans to create a web-based resource in which the society’s primary source documents, photos and narratives will be available online for free public access.

“Despite all the electronic cataloging in the world, oral history tapes are less accessible if they’re not transcribed. People don’t sit down and listen to a tape. They’ll look at a transcript,” said Sinclair.

“I feel sorry for the people that are trying to fill in, because they haven’t been trained, and they don’t know the collections,” she added.

“I’ve spent the last three years with the collection. There are a lot of nuances in historical material that don’t exist in catalogs or books. Oral history collections are different than photographs. They’re different than manuscripts.”

An uncertain future

The future for the suspended program is still uncertain, although current indications seem grim.

“The program was suspended, which means that the plan is to eventually bring it back,” Dubois said.

When asked what would have to happen to see the oral history program reinstituted, Dubois said, “State funding would be a big plus, but we’re looking for donors.”

However when asked whether the oral history project was currently a part of any future planning budgets, both Pierce and Dubois said that it was not.

The OHS is currently examining every aspect of the society’s structure in order to determine what can be done, according to Pierce.

“We’re evaluating all of our programs and activities. Nothing is sacred,” Pierce said.

The planning will be complete in early 2005.

The National Oral History Association held its annual meeting in Portland last week. Pierce was invited to meet on October 2 with a group of national oral historians who hoped to explore alternative funding mechanisms for oral history programs.

“I think PSU students should write letters, asking the OHS to re-fund the oral history project. The more that OHS hears that it’s important to the people of the state to have an oral history program, the more likely they are to re-fund it,” Sinclair said.

PSU history students left without resources

With the project’s suspension, PSU students are left with limited access to the society’s oral history archives and without a community partner for learning oral history.

For PSU, the suspension of the oral history program leaves many wondering how best to further the public history curriculum, which has relied heavily on the OHS in the past.

Before the suspension, public history students did internships, did practicums and gave a lot of work in exchange for training by OHS, according to Eliza Jones, a graduate student in the public history program, but that relationship is now disintegrating.

“If OHS and PSU move away from each other, it’s bad for historians, it’s bad for OHS and it’s bad for the community. Oral history is one of the building blocks of PSU’s public history program,” PSU history professor Bill Lang said. “It’s not something we can ignore and still say we have a public history program.”

“The work that my students do is important,” Barber said. “It often corrects the historical record-it doesn’t just supplement it.”

Impact to Oregon’s history

The project’s suspension has a significant potential impact to Oregon’s history, historians say.

“Government agencies and lawyers and folks who are not normally classified as historians have reason to use these collections. Having material about policymakers and policy formation thirty years ago can have a direct bearing on the work people are trying to do today,” Lang said.

According to an article by Sinclair for the Northwest Oral History Association, oral history is often the best way to document the history of marginalized groups like immigrants, women, gays and lesbians.

“Oral history is one of the best methods for documenting the people’s history, rather than the history that you find in the record, on paper,” Hansen said.

“We have a program that is current and alive. It’s taking in history right now,” Hansen said. “It makes the whole institution more accessible to the public because they see a direct connection with something that’s going on in their lives.”