Photo by Sarah Mirk

"A public trust broken!" read the poster board historian Mary Wheeler held outside the Oregon Historical Society library last Friday afternoon.

Next to Wheeler, a white-haired historian in a pink cardigan stood atop an actual soapbox, clutching a book and shouting to a crowd of 40 local librarians, historians, and novelists. The unlikely protesters had gathered to share their opinion about the Oregon Historical Society's (OHS) decision to axe its entire 13-person library staff due to budget shortfalls.

As of Friday, March 13, the collection of Oregon's films, photos, trail diaries, propaganda posters, and transit maps that for decades anyone could use to research Oregon's history is no longer open to the public.

The timing of the closure is ironic. In mid-February, state legislators celebrated Oregon's 150th birthday at the capitol building in Salem by consuming a reported 423 pounds of cake and 3,100 hot dogs. In between mouthfuls, Senate President Peter Courtney, dressed in period costume, gave a speech emphasizing the importance of Oregon's history.

Rachel Schoening, OHS spokeswoman, says the society has run up "a huge deficit" since the state cut its funding in 2001. "We basically ran ourselves into the ground," says Schoening.

OHS is a private group that runs a museum and library with both public and private funding. This year the society's annual donations were down, and its endowment took a $350,000 hit on the stock market. The society's executive director, George Vogt, decided the group needed to balance its budget with drastic cuts, but some historians believe the library is the wrong cut to make.

"This affects everyone from novelists to state legislators to documentary filmmakers," says Richard Engeman, the public historian at OHS before he was laid off in 2006. "You slam the door shut on the ability to tell those stories."

Thirty years ago, the library was free and open to the public seven days a week. In 2008, the library cost $10 to enter and was only public five days a week.

"If the archives remain inaccessible, it will make it so many graduate students won't finish their theses, books won't be written, and historical research will be shut down," says Kathy Tucker, director of the historian-run nonprofit Northwest History Network.

Historians are also upset about what will happen to the many photos, diaries, and other one-of-a-kind items people have donated to the library over the past century. "These materials were given in perpetuity, to be used by the public of Oregon. To say the public cannot access them is terrible," says Engeman.

Schoening says the society plans to rehire four librarians, two only temporarily. But OHS does not know when it will reopen the library, or whether it will ever be public again.