Historical Libraries Closing Nationwide


My local historical society (Oregon Historical Society) has fallen on hard times lately, and recently closed its research library, temporarily permanently laying off most of its librarians (update: 15 were permanently laid off, 4 were later hired back). Oregon isn't alone in this -- as our local NPR station pointed out, historical societies in New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia have been cutting hours and staff, if not closing entirely. The Oregon Historical Society has managed to keep its public museum open, but not the research library. The society's collection includes "2.5 million photographs as well as maps, newspapers, audio recordings and other historical items," many of which are now inaccessible due to the library closure.

Our regional issues talk show, Think Out Loud, covered the issue yesterday and framed the issue as library users (researchers, academics, genealogists) versus museum-goers (4th grade classrooms, tourists). In this case, the 4th graders won: the historical society's museum is open, but the research library is closed. Responding to the cutbacks, a bunch of library supporters staged a protest on the last day at work for the librarians. A few of the librarians were rehired, but the whole thing is far from over. (There's also a save the library petition with nearly 700 signatures and a Facebook group with nearly 900 members.)

Full disclosure: I work at a company that does work for museums, and I have many friends who have used the OHS library for research (both for work and personal projects). I want that library open, partly because I can use it for work! But this issue had me wondering about what we're prepared to sacrifice in times of economic crisis. It's hard to argue for art when people are hungry, but what about history and research? What kinds of scholarship are important enough to continue even in tough times? If asked to prioritize a museum -- a public space for direct learning -- versus a library -- a space for researchers, who might then create museums, books, films, etc. of their own by using the library -- how do we choose?

Have you seen cutbacks in the arts, humanities, or sciences in your community? What would you take to the streets for? Share your experiences in the comments. Also, if you're a fellow Oregonian with a local perspective on this issue, speak up!

(Image from the Library of Congress on Flickr, "Annual flower fete, Portland, Oregon," circa 1910-1915. Used under Creative Commons license.)