On Sept. 13 of last year, all who care about Georgia’s history were dismayed to learn that Secretary of State Brian Kemp would be closing the Georgia State Archives except by appointment.
Kemp opted to take budget reductions mandated by the governor for his division entirely from the state archives. Cutting staff and limiting access to collections would save $750,000.
Shockingly, our history was at risk of being lost or made inaccessible for less than $1 million dollars.
People leaped into action. More than 17,000 signed an online petition. The Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives rallied local historical and genealogical societies. Many articles appeared in newspapers and magazines and on television and radio.
Archivists gathered at Gov. Nathan Deal’s office a few days later. Members of the Society of Georgia Archivists had earlier arranged to have the governor proclaim October as Archives Month. We asked him to help keep the archives open, and he declared his support.
In early October, the groups rallied at the state Capitol. Perhaps the first picketers in the history of Georgia archives appeared with chants and signs. Supporters and government leaders demanded the archives be saved. The governor responded.
A few weeks later, we learned that funds were located to keep the archives open two days per week, but only five staff members remained employed. There also was a proposal to move the archives under the Board of Regents.
The coalition and the Friends of the Georgia Archives and History shifted gears toward assuring a sound future for the archives by working with the Legislature in support of the governor’s proposal to move it under the Regents. House Bill 287 authorizing the move to the University System of Georgia passed both the House and Senate unanimously. The Legislature also increased the archives’ budget by $300,000. Gov. Deal signed the bill.
On Monday, the Georgia Archives, which first opened in 1919, will start anew with the official transfer to the Board of Regents. The facility will remain in its state-of-the-art building in Morrow, but much work remains to be done.
The archives will begin staying open four days a week on July 31, and three new staff members will be hired this summer. Yet the budget is still too small for an institution regarded as one of the best in the country, and researchers would like to have the archives open five days a week. More staff is needed to make sure records are collected, preserved and made accessible. The Regents will continue to look for increased funding and creative solutions, including using more students and volunteers to assist researchers.
The people of Georgia have learned a painful lesson. We cannot take for granted that our history will be preserved just because it is the right thing to do.
We must remain vigilant as we work with the university system to make sure Georgia’s history has a future.
Kaye Lanning Minchew is executive director of the Troup County Archives in LaGrange and co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives.
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