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Two-year remodel includes digitized collections offering look into state's past

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The reception desk with new pendant lights at the Oregon Historical Society's remodeled library, now open by appointment. The books on display are city directories. Most works are in storage.

While public libraries still have a lot of books on shelves and have not been taken over by computers and meeting rooms, research libraries tend to be more sparsely furnished.

The Oregon Historical Society unveiled its newly remodeled library Oct. 15 and, with architect Heneberry Eddy Architects, has embraced the serious study hall concept. Most people who come in to research Oregon order up their books, newspapers, slides, maps and journals in advance, then sit for a few days working at "hot desks."

Heneberry Eddy and the contractor Reimers & Jolivette renovated the library to let in more light (but less ultraviolet light) and feel less cluttered. The books on the shelves are mostly reference works, such as the large city directories, and when the walls are adorned with maps and Pendleton blankets, they will be primarily decorative.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Historical Society Library Director Shawna Gandy, the chief librarian, and Kerry Tymchuk, OHS's executive director, (right) in the newly remodeled library. After a two-year break for construction and COVID, the largest collection of Oregon-related material in the world is open by appointment, at 25% capacity. Gandy is looking at Capt. John Couch's sea journal.

The renovation took nearly two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the staff relocated to the OHS storage facility in Gresham, where most of its objects are kept, including vintage cars and spare wagon wheels.

The work on the fourth floor is finally done. The Brutalist concrete of the mid-1960s building, opposite the Portland Art Museum, has been cleaned. The windows have an ultraviolet-blocking film. Big screen televisions have arrived. Rooms have been reconfigured for more intimate meeting spaces and offices. There are copper-colored pendant lights over the reception to give it some midcentury modern flavor. The Pietro Belluschi room now has a long window atop its inner wall to illuminate the building's interior.

The work cost around $2.5 million, which came from donations, not what the voters voted for in November 2020.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The newly remodeled Oregon Historical Society library. Note the old tables, new chairs, new TV and glass barriers for stacks on the left.

OHS Library Director Shawna Gandy, the chief librarian, also acted as partial project manager. She's the one who went down to Video Only to buy four large TV sets for those who prefer video with their scholarship.

The new meeting rooms are accessible to the public but not in the way that, say, the U.S. Bank Room is on the ground floor of the Central Library, where people used to wander in and out of lunchtime talks at will.

OHS spokesperson Rachel Randles told the Business Tribune, "Truly, the research library is open to all. You could be a seventh grader working on a National History Day project, a graduate student doing research on their thesis, an artist who is gaining inspiration from the materials in our collection, a novice genealogist hoping to learn more about a relative with Oregon ties, or even someone who just wants to browse photographs of old Portland, just for fun."

They often get people researching the history of a neighborhood or a house they have bought.

But the pop-in days of yore have been suspended. It's appointment only. "If someone wants to make an appointment simply to browse photographs, they are more than welcome to do so. No larger scholarly purpose needed," Randles said.

Rep. Edith Green's papers, all 372 boxes of them, get called up quite a bit. Other hot topics right now include genealogy, maps showing climate change and redlining, which is racial discrimination in housing.

But they don't keep every playbill from every local play. "We're not a government repository. We're a private nonprofit. We try to collect as good a representative sample in focused areas as we can, but we can't collect it all. We're not Oregon's attic," Gandy said. She explained that library meeting spaces are primarily for instruction; educators, students and community partners visiting the library; and internal meetings.

Medium rare

"It is not like a public library in that it is not a place to just drop in to check your email or browse the internet. They most certainly can read whatever is on the shelves and view materials they request, but they cannot check out materials to take them home, as our library holdings include many items that are rare or unique."

Andrew Smith at Heneberry Eddy was the principal architect with whom Gandy worked for a long time. Gandy noted, "We had very specific requirements for having the right kinds of materials that protect the collections, that eliminate UV light and that don't have harmful chemicals in them, so it's a very green space."

They also worked to divide the space up efficiently and secure the collections on-site. "It's very different from a public library where you just go into the stacks and pull what you want because most of the items in our collections are rare."

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - The way it used to be: The Oregon Historical Society library in more analog times. The staff of 14 is working on digitizing what it can, but many items are still accessible in paper and film form.

Jefferson rebranded

The library had barely changed since the 1960s, occupying the same footprint on the fourth floor. With its card catalogs and open stacks, it felt cluttered. The original wooden tables remain, but new wooden chairs have been added. In addition, they created a classroom directly connected to the reading room for small groups that come in to use this space.

What used to be the Jefferson room, which was a conference room, has been lightened up and rebranded the Pietro Belluschi Resource Center (after the famous Portland architect) and is a showcase for OHS's architectural collections. Recently Gandy was displaying some panoramic photos of hops growing in the 1930s, archives from The Skanner newspaper, and a flyer from a 1982 Gay Pride event. When the Portland State students studying LGBTQ issues come in, she lays out historical documents for them.

"They get an idea of the vast array of things that we have, and then you can see the lights going off in their head, and they're like, 'Wow, there's all this history here.'"

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - The Oregon Historical Society library way back when. Note the tables that are still in use today after the recent remodel.

Researcher's dream

The University of Oregon's historic preservation program in Portland also uses the room, which is suitable for laying out large papers. On display is Capt. John Couch's illustrated sea journal, which contains several sketches of the coastline in the 19th century.

"And I love it because I grew up in Reedsport," said Kerry Tymchuk, OHS executive director.

"It's being used by researchers of all types," Gandy said. "There's some pent-up demand. We have been fulfilling requests remotely all through the pandemic. We don't just serve historians. We also get a lot of business from genealogists. But even artists and novelists. We've had composers use our collections as a basis for their compositions. And then also historic preservation people who are studying buildings."

Tymchuk proudly pointed out the gender-neutral bathroom, perhaps a sign that the Historical Society is still relevant.

"We do quite a bit of business with filmmakers who are interested in our archival film footage, television news footage," Gandy said.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Oregon Historical Society, an example of 1966 Brutalist architecture, on the South Park Blocks has reopened its library.

"The most famous being 'Wild Wild Country,'" added Tymchuck, referring to the 2018 documentary about the spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his cult near Antelope. Just that morning, with the news that Lloyd Center might close, they were fielding queries from TV stations for archival images. "We have some very, very important stuff. It's the largest collection of Oregon-related material in the world," Tymchuk said.

Gandy added, "I've been here for 25 years. I've seen a lot. This is just amazing. It is such a transformation. I'm still pinching myself. Because of COVID, we can't just open the doors and have big parties. We've limited it to about 25% capacity. But we welcome people back with open arms."

Oregon Historical Society & Library

ADDRESS: 1200 S.W. Park Ave., Portland

PHONE: 503 306 5240



Shawna Gandy

"We always encourage visitors to prepare by visiting the library pages on our online catalog and OHS Digital Collections, and contacting the reference desk in advance of their visit to be sure that the materials they need are available when they visit. Our reference librarians are very knowledgeable and friendly, and expect and welcome questions."

OHS's research library preserves the largest collection of Oregon-related archival and published materials, documenting the people, places and events that have shaped the history of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. These materials include books, manuscripts, oral histories and sound recordings, films and moving images, and photographs, some of which are accessible online through OHS Digital Collections and the library's digital history projects. The library currently is open by appointment due to COVID restrictions, although free for anyone to visit.

Being digital

The Oregon Historical Society Library also acquired some equipment to digitize old film stock and cassette tapes as well as display vintage lantern slides, which are photographs sandwiched between two pieces of glass. There's a new two-axis table for scanning large documents like posters.

Gandy says with digitization, researchers now expect researchers to have everything digital and online at their fingertips, which is not the case. Staff are trying to catch up.

"We've joined the Digital Public Library of America, for example, and some of our digital collections are on that site as well."

There's also the collaborative learning lab for smaller groups of students, where a community group might do some research, or someone conducts an oral history interview. Digitization has caused a boom in researching local history and genealogy, and technology has made oral history affordable.

"I just took the oral history of Doug Houser, who was a leading attorney in town and was Phil Knight's first cousin who was involved at the get-go from Nike," Tymchuk said.

"We do not currently have an oral historian on staff, however, we do have an oral history librarian who can give tips. We have a longtime partnership with the {obj:58172:U.S. District Court}of Oregon Historical Society, the Oregon Labor History Project , and a much newer affiliation withThe Immigrant Story."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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