Oregon Historical Society in jeopardy

The Oregon Historical Society is in financial jeopardy and its fate will be decided by ballot on Nov. 2, when Multnomah County voters will consider a local levy to fund the society for the next five years.

The Oregon Historical Society is in financial jeopardy and its fate will be decided by ballot on Nov. 2, when Multnomah County voters will consider a local levy to fund the society for the next five years.

The levy—titled Measure 26-118—would impose a 5-cent tax on county property with a value assessed at $1,000 or more, providing $150,000 for each of the five years that the levy is in effect. The average taxpayer would pay $10 per year and, in return, would have free admission to the Oregon Historical Museum and Research Library.

The OHS has relied on both private and state funding since its inception in 1898. Although the bulk of this funding has been private—which remains true in both comparative and absolute terms—the OHS has, to varying degrees of dependency, always counted on state funds in order to operate.

Within the last decade, however, the state has largely withdrawn these essential funds. More recently, the Oregon legislature, in an increasingly budget-strapped fiscal climate, has all but severed the umbilical cord that is the OHS’s public funding. 

In recent years, and especially since 2003, the OHS has been fading in increments. It is now more expensive than ever to house and maintain its collection of artifacts and other materials while making it available to the public.

According to Kristin Teigen, a Portland State graduate and campaign associate for the OHS, the society has “cut its staff and services fairly dramatically and rather unfortunately.”

“The library used to be open 32 hours a week; it had 15 librarians, [and] there used to be professional historians on staff to serve the public and to conduct additional research,” she said.

The library now has a “bare bones” staff and is open only 12 hours a week, and the organization has had its funding cut by a third, according to Teigen. After seven years of financial depletion, and without enough reserves to sustain itself at its current scale, the OHS has “nothing more to lose without losing its overall purpose.”

If the levy passes, it would provide a five-year halfway house of funding for the OHS. In the meantime, its board of directors would determine how to raise its supply of private funds while renewing a steady stream of state funds.

As such, the levy represents only a short-term solution to the OHS’s overarching financial woes. 

“We don’t see this as a permanent revenue source,” Teigen said. “We’re still wanting to figure out ways of making sure the state can pick up its commitment to the OHS.”

However, the levy’s five-year duration would give the OHS “breathing room” to find alternative resources to renew the contract with the state, Teigen said.  

If voters defeat the levy, the OHS will find itself in a grave position, as the society might have to play triage with its diminishing funds.

It is conceivable that the OHS’s library would remain open at the expense of closing the museum, or vice versa. 

One thing is certain: Portland State would not be unaffected by the levy’s defeat. The OHS has many close ties to PSU, some of which date back to when the university was still a college.

In particular, PSU’s Department of History features a public history program, a research fellows program, a capstone program, an internship program and other programs that routinely utilize the OHS’s archival materials. In addition, many students with advanced degrees go on to work for the OHS, and several faculty members not only conduct their research through the OHS but also publish that research in the society’s peer-reviewed quarterly journal.

Associate Professor Chet Orloff, the former OHS executive director, expects that the levy’s defeat would damage PSU’s history department, as well as other departments, including urban studies, geography, business, architecture, black studies and women’s studies. Because of the extensive overlap between the two institutions, Orloff claims that few disciplines would remain uninjured by the OHS’s further reduction, not to mention its full-blown closure.

“The passage of the levy will immediately relieve anxiety among undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty who use the historical society, as well as the Portland State graduates who work in the community as historians,” said Professor Bill Lang, former member of the OHS editorial board and current executive editor of the Oregon Encyclopedia.

Although a large portion of Oregon’s electorate is dependably tax-averse, there does not appear to be any organized opposition to the levy. This might relate to the fact that the levy is directed at a beloved and highly visible public resource. Additionally, the levy will immediately cease in the event that the state renews its support for the OHS in the interim.

The OHS is unusual as a state historical society in that it is not a state agency but a private corporation organized as a nonprofit. Whereas almost every historical society west of the Mississippi River is public, the OHS’s model more closely resembles that of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

Nevertheless, state historical societies are universally supported in some aspect by state funding, Teigen said.

“Right now, [the OHS] receives the lowest amount of support from its state,” she said. “If [the OHS] closes, we’ll be the only state in the union without a historical society.”