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SOHS fights for its survival

JACKSONVILLE — Launching itself into a new strategy of public participation, accessibility and relevance to modern life, the financially stricken Southern Oregon Historical Society last night began a series of town hall meetings it hopes will bring in the revenues it needs to survive.

Calling SOHS "completely unsustainable" when she arrived on the job in July, Executive Director Allison Weiss told a crowd of 50 at the U.S. Hotel in Jacksonville the society has "huge potential" but had to move off its outdated approach of unchanging exhibits showing the past "frozen in time."

Markers and butcher paper in hand, the crowd broke into focus groups and drew up recommendations to bring SOHS into the 21st century, most of them centering around making files, collections and old objects more accessible on the Internet and in public windows and buildings — and working with more volunteers and in partnerships with other organizations.

"In the past, SOHS operated in a vacuum," Weiss said. "We made all the decisions. We decided what's important to you. The new model is to draw the community in. The people in these focus groups are coming up with answers that are amazing. They're saying bring us into the discussion." Participants, most of them members of SOHS, offered dozens of ideas, including:

  • Make Hanley Farm self-sufficient.
  • Use staff more in board discussions.
  • Stop trying to serve all of Southern Oregon and focus more tightly.
  • Get more grant-writers.
  • Use influence to lessen heavy truck traffic through historic downtown Jacksonville.
  • Expand focus beyond pioneer times.

"What I get from this," said Weiss, "is that people want to see the collections more often and have access to the archives." Weiss noted that it's a long process, up to five years, to digitize all files and collections, but "it's the only way people are going to get access." Many historical societies have hundreds of thousands of three-dimensional objects online, she said, adding that SOHS has digitized 15,000 objects but they're not yet online.

"People understand they can't go paging through archives very easily. They want to see these objects and files," she said. "We tried the big permanent exhibits in big buildings but once people have seen them, they don't go back. We could put them in schools, hospitals, county buildings. A lot can be done by volunteers." The nominal SOHS property tax levy approved by voters in 1948 was gutted by a 1999 ballot measure that allowed Jackson County officials to fold its revenues into the county general fund, Weiss told the group, and money ran out in 2007, when "we were expected to be self-sustaining." Because of low revenues, SOHS operations were suspended Sept. 7.

Weiss, in an interview, said SOHS can seek relevancy to 21st century needs by elucidating the course of human experience in such timeless issues as finance, education, diversity, jobs and the environment.

Weiss said she and other SOHS officials have been meeting with county commissioners and believes "they want to see this organization succeed. They want to see how we're going to rebuild and make it financially stable.

"We need to build a base of solid support," she added. "We can't do that on $35 donations. We have to develop programs that are relevant to the community and serve the community's purposes."

Weiss said she will approach county commissioners for some bridge funding, say three years, "to tide us over" until they're stable.

The town hall last night was for residents of Jacksonville, where most SOHS historic buildings are located. The meeting tonight at 7 in the U.S. Hotel will be for business owners. Ashland's meeting will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ashland Public Library. Medford's will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Medford library (Gresham Street entrance). The public is invited to all meetings.

For information, call SOHS at 541-899-8123, ext. 245, or go to www.sohs.org.