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Move to Close the Georgia State Archives Met with Disbelief, Anger

Secretary of State Brian Kemp plans to close the archives in Morrow to reduce his budget by 3 percent.

By now, the outrage has reached a boiling point, with protests, petitions and Facebook groups appearing because of the recent announcement that the Georgia State Archives will close on October 31. The 171,000-square-foot facility in Morrow--dedicated in 2005--will be open only by appointment, said Jared Thomas, press secretary for Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

"Thousands of Georgians use these sources for work on family history, genealogy and many other subjects," said Athens author Al Hester, a retired journalism professor. "This is the final blow, when a public agency completely shuts its doors to satisfiy a perverted concept of serving the public by not serving taxpayers at all."

The move is designed to save the department $732,626, said Thomas. The budgetary discretion is left up to Kemp, but . The elections division has to continue functioning, and so do the licensing and corporate offices.

According to a press release from Kemp's office, "the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget has instructed the Office of the Secretary of State to further reduce its budget for AFY13 and FY14 by 3%. These cuts do not eliminate excess in the agency, but require the agency to further reduce services to the citizens of Georgia."

The past few years, the archives' hours of operation have been shrinking, from every week day and Saturday to three days a week. Last year, the facility was open only Friday and Saturday. Now, all hours of operation are gone, and with them, most of the archivists who have cared and catalogued the collection for years.

Remember the Vanishing Georgia project from the 1970s? It yielded more than 18,000 photos of the life, culture and history of the state. Some photos were included in a handsome book, entitled Vanishing Georgia. The project, which involved a mobile photographic lab driving around the state, was undertaken by the staff of the Georgia State Archives. The digital images are now stored at the University of Georgia.

Some people have wondered about moving the State Archives to the new Richard B. Russell Building and Special Collections Libraries at UGA. The problem with that arrangement is that the new UGA building was constructed to last for the next 40 years. Bringing the archives to Athens would consume all the space set aside for anticipated future needs.

Kemp says he "will fight during this legislative session to have this cut restored so the people will have a place to meet, research, and review the historical records of Georgia."

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition supporting keeping the Archives open and accessible. Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina all keep their archives open more days than Georgia, which will be the only state in the country with closed archives.

UGA History Professor and author Jim Cobb has written eloquently about the archives and what closing them means to the state:

Two years ago at this time, the Friends of Georgia Archives and History held their annual meeting under the pall cast on the proceedings by a recent announcement that the rich collections and resources of the Georgia State Archives would henceforth be available to individual researchers only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Honored by the invitation to speak to this beleaguered band of believers in the vital importance of not only preserving the past but keeping it accessible to the public, I mused that what then seemed a truly Draconian cutback in research hours was yet another sign that we, as a state and a society, appeared to be succumbing to something akin to nostalgia for the Dark Ages. I meant this as an attempt at dark humor, but even then it hit too close to the mark to be very amusing, and since then the distinction between nostalgia and reality has all but evaporated. The archives’ research hours were slashed even further to Fridays and Saturdays only last year, and with this week’s announcement by Secretary of State Brian Kemp that, as of Nov. 1, the facility will be “closed to the public,” the handwriting on the wall has effectively become a death sentence.

To make the punishment even more cruel and unusual, in October, the state’s most vital historical repository will mark its final days on Death Row during what Gov. Nathan Deal is set to proclaim as “Georgia Archives Month.”

The hypocrisy of this absurd charade becomes even more blatant in light of the fact that we, as Georgians and southerners, have long and steadfastly declared our profound respect for the power and importance of the past. It is surely worth noting that none of our less affluent southern neighbors, who are facing the same economic woes plaguing us, has even come close to shutting down its state archives.

Mississippi’s is still open to researchers six days a week, South Carolina’s five, and Alabama’s four, in addition to one Saturday a month. The archives of the respective states have functioned heretofore as a cooperative resource network through which, regardless of where they live or what drives their curiosity, researchers can examine historical evidence of all sorts. Contrary to the impression we are sometimes given, these research facilities do not function solely or, I dare say, even primarily, for the benefit of professors and graduate students. They offer vital records and documents to a broad variety of individuals seeking information about legal actions, property transfers, boundary disputes, and other matters of genuine practical value.

More importantly still, perhaps, the archives of every state provide vital personal clues as to who were are and whence our “people” came, not to mention the history of the communities that we now call “home.” By closing our archives, we are effectively reneging on our commitment to cooperate with other states in maintaining a historically informed citizenry, here and elsewhere.

As befits cultures in which history has traditionally been passed on to younger generations through oral narrative, an old African proverb holds that “every time an old man dies, a library burns,” the implication being that if a people fail to collect and pass on vital information about their past, it will eventually be lost to them. Rather than become historically ignorant in stages and over time, our elected officials in Atlanta have opted, either actively or tacitly, to hasten our descent into self-induced historical amnesia, regardless of the consequences for contemporary generations and, worse still, for those yet to come.

The best hope for forestalling this tragedy lies in contacting Gov. Deal and let him know how strongly you feel about this shortsighted and embarrassing decision to put a padlock on our state’s past.

E Keathley September 18, 2012 at 08:41 PM
Nice that there will be no one to answer FOIA requests or fact check voting records during political season, eh?
Merri Torre September 19, 2012 at 01:14 AM
While family history is nice, this is the least of concerns with the closing of the archives. These records are vital for government transparency and used for law and business everyday. Today all but the director and assistant director were laid off. October the 31st is the last day for all staff. If you believe that you will have public access to public records, you are sadly mistaken. If you do nothing to fight for the reinstatement of the staff, you have already permitted the Georgia Archives to close, and with it your right to accessing any record you may ever need.
Chris F. September 19, 2012 at 01:48 AM
If we, as state, supported raising revenue through taxes or other means, then we wouldn't be facing such things. Check out 2020georgia.org

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