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The archives await

Nearly a year after voters turned down a levy to fund the Southern Oregon Historical Society, the now all-volunteer nonprofit hopes to partner with the library to add a part-time staff member to the payroll, while giving library cardholders new benefits.

On Thursday afternoon, the Southern Oregon Historical Society Board of Trustees will make its pitch to the Jackson County Library District, in the hopes that free access to the historical society's extensive and indexed archives, among other expanded services for the public, could be worth roughly $46,000 per year. The meeting will begin at 4 p.m. in the Adams Room of the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave., Medford.

Volunteer archivist Pat Harper, who spent six years as the staff archivist before the Heritage District levy's failure in November prompted layoffs of all paid staff, said the present all-volunteer structure is not sustainable. Keeping the collection of 64,000 photos and 93,000 artifacts in the collection cataloged, indexed and organized requires an archivist who can manage consistency day-to-day, Harper said.

“When you have multiple volunteers working a few hours each week, the organization side suffers,” Harper said. "If they aren't well-organized and kept well-organized, then they become lost and they become quite useless."

Volunteer coordinator Vicki Bryden, who has been involved with the organization since 2010, said each volunteer brings different knowledge, but consistency suffers.

"I'll say, 'Come back on Friday because that's when the railroad people come,' " Bryden said. "We have to do that too much."

Bryden said the collection of artifacts, which includes century-old property records, marriage licenses, maps and more than 100,000 photographs of the area, are resources that owners of historic properties often draw upon when applying for the National Register of Historic Places. 

"We're the ones who have that history," Bryden said.

Much of what's in the collection isn't available elsewhere, according to Bryden and Harper.

Though some parts of an archivist's job need Harper's three decades of library science experience, other portions just take time. Harper volunteers at least six hours a week but isn't certain she can volunteer indefinitely.

"You can't really ask a volunteer to put in 20 or 30 hours a week," Harper said.

"This isn't something that the public library can do at the reference desk," Bryden said. "It's a way-expanded range of knowledge that we can draw from."

There are 78 databases on the Jackson County Library Services website, but none are local or focused on Oregon, according to the SOHS proposal. The only local history offering is the Windows in Time series, a public library program done in partnership with the historical society.

The proposed partnership seeks a first-year infusion of $47,608 from the library district and $45,808 annually. SOHS would expand research library hours in downtown Medford to four days a week, waive the $5 SOHS research library use fee for cardholders, and make digitized historical documents available free to access online.

Harper also said the organization would nearly double the amount of scanned historical photos available online to 8,300. Many of the photos previously had been left off the site because sales of high-resolution photos were a source of revenue for SOHS.

Harper said she hasn't heard any feedback about the proposal.

“I would say all of us are looking at the board meeting as the time to discuss it,” Harper said.

Should the partnership move forward, the two organizations would face technical challenges merging their catalogs, the proposal says. For example, the SOHS research library materials are catalogued using a system called PastPerfect, which is not compatible with the format public libraries use.

Harper said library and archival systems have separate priorities, and cataloging for both is a "complex process."

"One (standard) isn't necessarily higher than the other, but they're different."

No other partnerships are in the pipeline should the deal fall through, Harper said, but despite the challenges, the reference focus and interests in local history of both entities makes the proposal seem promising. 

"It's a recognized part of public library missions, so we feel it's the best fit," Harper said.

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

Pat Harper of the Southern Oregon Historical Society looks through a box file of historical photos at the SOHS library in downtown Medford Wednesday afternoon. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
Pat Harper of the Southern Oregon Historical Society looks through a file of historical maps of Ashland at the SOHS library in downtown Medford Wednesday afternoon. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]