Powering History: The Oregon Historical Society Volunteers

April 21, 2020

By Ally Huffman

As we celebrate Volunteer Appreciation Week, we want to recognize the over 200 volunteers that support every department at the Oregon Historical Society. We frequently open our mail to find cards from students across the state thanking our volunteer docents who give countless hours preparing for and leading school tours, and creating memorable experiences in our museum.

One thing I’ve noticed amidst all of the tragedy and anxiety from this pandemic is that there also seems to be a renewed focus on the good in humanity: folks looking out for their neighbors, signs of support for healthcare workers, donations of personal protective equipment, and more. There are amazing people out there. As the Annual Giving & Volunteer Manager at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS), I have the benefit of working with incredible, generous people every day! Last year, 200 volunteers logged over 6,000 hours in service to our mission. In honor of National Volunteer Week, I want to acknowledge the many individuals who have given their time and talents to support OHS through our volunteer program.

You’ve likely encountered some of our volunteers at special events such as Holiday Cheer, Oregon Statehood Day, or at our quarterly Family Days; it would be impossible to produce such popular events without volunteers welcoming visitors, serving birthday cake, or running activity tables. At the end of April, OHS will (virtually) host one of our favorite annual events, Oregon History Day, which requires 80 to 90 volunteers to evaluate student projects and run the event.

Volunteers Janet Lee and Martha Shepherd serve cake to visitors on Oregon’s 160th birthday.
Volunteers Janet Lee and Martha Shepherd serve cake to visitors attending Oregon’s 160th birthday celebration on February 14, 2019.
Dr. Kimberly Jensen leads a Nevertheless, They Persisted docent training session.
While volunteer docents give many hours leading tours for students and adults each month, few know about the rigorous training our exhibit guides must undertake before leading tours. In this photo, docent trainees listen to a presentation by Dr. Kimberly Jensen during a training session for the OHS exhibition, “Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment.”

As OHS continues to expand its educational offerings, volunteers play an essential role, providing engaging opportunities to learn about Oregon’s history. Our docents (exhibit tour guides) spend several hours each month not only leading tours, but also researching, developing, and refining their presentations for both youth and adult audiences. Our Community Speakers Bureau consists of seven volunteers who bring Oregon history to retirement homes and assisted living facilities, providing educational experiences to residents who would otherwise not be able to visit our museum in person. In the last year, these volunteers have visited 95 locations and presented to over 2,000 people.

Volunteers also perform critical work for OHS behind the scenes. Thanks to the help of volunteers, we have transcripts for many of our oral histories, some of which are now available online through OHS Digital Collections. Volunteers sew padded hangers to help store and protect our museum’s costume collection, while others research photos and primary source documents for The Oregon Encyclopedia and future exhibits, and proofread pages for the Oregon Historical Quarterly and maintain its databases. Certain skilled volunteers work directly with the museum and library collections; one meticulous and patient volunteer is completing the catalog records of a collection of 7,000 political buttons! Volunteers even provide critical administrative support, and while not glamorous, their work cleaning up databases, organizing supply areas, and processing mailings and OHQ subscriptions allows OHS to run as efficiently as possible.

Volunteer Maria Strawn sews padded hangers to store textiles held in the OHS Museum collection.
Volunteers perform important work behind the scenes to protect and make sure our collections are preserved and accessible for future generations. Here, volunteer Maria Strawn sews padded hangers to store the delicate textiles in the OHS Museum’s costume collection.

Although the research library’s downtown reading room closed for renovation at the end of December 2019, I want to be sure to acknowledge the many library assistant volunteers who have helped register visitors, pulled photo and vertical files, and assisted researchers with microfilm for decades. We have received wonderful feedback from researchers about the support they receive in the library, and our volunteers have been a big part of their experience.

To all of our past and present volunteers, thank you for all you have done and continue to do to help preserve our collections, facilitate research, share history, inspire curiosity, and make OHS a welcome place for everyone. Thank you for seeing the importance in our mission. And thank you for inspiring me every day with your generosity and support.

The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of OHS. The Oregon Historical Society does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.