Online Salem history archive to change hands

In two clicks and for zero dollars, anyone can access over 5,000 photographs from journalist Ben Maxwell, a Salem historian and photographer who worked at the Capital Journal newspaper beginning in 1939.

Photos include workers at the Oregon State Hospital over 50 years ago, at least 13 Oregon governors and buildings that no longer exist.

It’s just one collection of six available on, a public online archive run by the Salem Public Library.

The library and stakeholders are looking to improve the resource in the next few years by transitioning it to management who will update it more frequently and have staff with archival experience on hand, likely a nonprofit with a focus on local heritage.

The library’s single staff member who oversaw the collections retired last year.

City Librarian Kim Carroll said in an email to Salem Reporter that the library wanted the project to be more sustainable and accessible.

“We also wanted to align the project with departments and organizations that had the capacity to maintain and oversee the collection as part of its mission,” she said. “Library staff have multiple duties and are at capacity. They are unable to give the collection the time and dedication it deserves.”

Salem is one of seven Oregon Heritage All-Star Communities, a designation that requires an organization in the community to retain written records, documents and photographs for public research and education.

At this point, is one of the only online archives with historic photos of Salem, said Kimberli Fitzgerald, the city’s historic preservation manager.

“ met that criteria back in 2013,” when the city was given the designation, “and it still does, so we’re not going to take it away until we have some kind of alternative,” she said.

The main issue, she said, is that the library didn’t have an archivist on staff to curate historical photographs. The staff member who oversaw the site and had the most experience with the collection retired last year.

The Salem Culture and Heritage Forum, which was established when the community was recognized as a Heritage All-Star, will spend the next couple of years doing strategic planning for the transition. The group is a coalition of local organizations, including the City of Salem and Willamette Heritage Center.

The Willamette Heritage Center has already taken over the encyclopedic part of, which listed articles of Salem History. The library took that offline in 2020, said Kylie Pine, the heritage center’s curator and collections manager.

The center worked with donors and the Public Library Foundation to transfer the content to the Willamette Heritage Center’s site

“The hope was not only to make the content available again, because it had been taken offline, but also to freshen it up and maybe look a little bit more critically about what history looks like now, in 2022, (than) as it did 20 years ago,” Pine said.

Along with the updates, Pine said they also hope to make the site a hub for connecting people with additional Salem-based historical resources.

Plans for the future of Salem’s online photography archive are still in very early stages, and it is unclear where its next home will be. Fitzgerald said the likely first choice would be to have a nonprofit partner take the lead on maintaining it.

“We really want to maintain our Heritage All-Star Designation. It’s been a wonderful experience and great opportunity, just having this collaborative focus,” she said. 

Fitzgerald said she is particularly fond of the Maxwell collection.

“I’m not a photographer, but he makes me want to become one. Because, for historians it’s a cheesy phrase: a picture’s worth a thousand words. I can’t do what I do without having access to – especially his – photos,” she said.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.