Does history have a future?

The Southern Oregon Historical Society's decision to close its Jacksonville museums for six months while it retrenches is a sound move. What happens during that six months will determine the organization's future.

Jackson County residents, whether they realize it or not, have a stake in that future. So does Jackson County's government. County leaders should consider carefully their responsibility toward the society and what the county stands to lose if the society ceases to exist.

The society's present struggles began in 1997, when Oregon voters approved a property tax limitation measure that merged all special levies into a single county tax base. One of those levies was the 25 cents per $1,000 approved by county voters in 1948 to support the Historical Society and its operations.

The county could have continued to fund the society at some level, but commissioners decided not to. Society supporters tried to place a measure on the ballot to create a heritage district supported by a levy of 7 cents per $1,000, but failed to collect the required 16,632 signatures by the deadline. The commissioners could have placed the measure on the ballot themselves, but declined to do so.

That left the society in an untenable position, obligated to maintain historic buildings it does not own, without enough income to cover the cost. The society had little choice but to shutter those buildings and lay off most of its remaining staff.

Besides its natural beauty and mild climate, the Rogue Valley boasts a rich history, stretching from American Indian culture through European settlement, the gold rush, the coming of the railroad, the growth of the timber industry and a world-famous pear crop and, during World War II, a large military presence at Camp White. That history, and the museums and exhibits that make it visible to the public, are a vital part of the county's tourism economy.

They are also a public asset. The historic buildings now scheduled to close belong to the public. So does the collection of 1 million artifacts and 800,000 documents amassed by the society in its half-century of tax-supported existence.

County leaders, as the public's representatives, need to accept some responsibility for protecting and preserving those assets. If the Historical Society ceased to exist, the county would be forced to assume all of the responsibility and all of the associated costs.

It is in the county's interest to work with the society and to show the public that history has value and is worth some investment of public resources.

The society has created an impressive legacy. Preserving and protecting that legacy is an enormous responsibility, one that should not be left to a handful of dedicated people scrounging donations.

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