Georgia Archives thriving under new management


THE GEORGIA ARCHIVES — BY THE NUMBERS

Staffing:

  • 2012: 8 employees
  • 2015: 24 employees

Attendance:

  • 2012: 7,009 visitors
  • 2015: 9,092 visitors

Budget:

  • 2012: $4.3 million
  • 2015: $5.2 million

James Evans sat tucked away in a back room at the Georgia Archives one recent rainy weekday, head down in concentration, nearly oblivious to the staffers buzzing nearby.

For Evans, an independent researcher, this is normal. He has work to do, digging into family history and genealogy on behalf of people who hire him. For those staffers, however, every day is a reminder to take nothing for granted.

Three years after the Archives almost closed for regular public business, a new era has begun for the state’s premier keeper of government records and treasure trove of history. Since 2012, the Archives’ staff has tripled, seen its budget grow by more than 20 percent and welcomed a 30 percent increase in the number of visitors coming through the doors.

New computers and monitors now greet Evans on his visits. He’s also noticed the increase in warm bodies there to help him do his job.

“We need to understand our past, and the information they have here needs to be accessible to everybody,” Evans said. “We need to understand our past. The access to that here is great.”

Archives supporters are hoping to build on that momentum. Students from the building’s neighbor, Clayton State University, are helping organize an effort for the Archives to market itself better and grow. Bigger and better workshops and other events — such as a recent workshop on the War of 1812 — are being organized to draw more people in. Efforts are underway to broaden programs such as the Archives’ partnership with the Georgia Humanities Council for its annual statewide awards program related to National History Day.

“For years, it was, ‘how do we keep programs from shrinking?’ ” archives Director Chris Davidson said. “It’s a big change from being close to closure to, ‘what projects can we grow and improve?’ ”

Lawmakers in 2013 took control of the Georgia Archives away from the Secretary of State's Office and gave it instead to the University System of Georgia. The move, worked out by Gov. Nathan Deal, came seven months after Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced layoffs at the Archives and the cancellation of public hours, a decision that surprised the governor and led to several public protests.

Because of those budget cuts, the Archives had offered the fewest public hours in the nation. The management change made it the first archives to be run by a state university system. By all accounts, the move has been a success.

"If we'd gone down, we were going to go down with a fight," said Kaye Lanning Minchew, president of the Friends of Georgia Archives & History support group. "When things were at the darkest, I don't think we thought it could be this good in 2015. But the state Archives is in the best shape it's been in in the last 10 years."

The Georgia Archives was created in 1918 to collect, maintain and provide access to the government records of Georgia. Its first home was the state Capitol. The small campus it sits on in Morrow is its fourth home, where it moved in 2003. Here, it watches over everything from the Royal Charter of 1732 — establishing the future Peach State as a new colony — to modern-day electronic emails from one state agency to another. It plays a key role in preserving residents’ right to access that information, and acts as a resource to the government itself.

Yet the library also boasts Civil War records, family history books, property deeds and even marriage records from across Georgia — not counting the county records it has from other states.

“There’s just a lot of stuff nobody realizes is there,” said Ken Thomas, a longtime historian and genealogist who helped organize supporters rallying to save the Archives during the 2012 crisis.

“Moving to the University System has really encouraged us to work with the universities and has broken down barriers that may have been there in the past,” Davidson said. “We’re all working closely together, with like-minded institutions.”

“We fully realize nothing can be taken for granted,” Davidson said.