A firestorm has erupted over the state’s decision to sharply curtail public access to the Georgia Archives.
The announcement late Thursday quickly became a cause celebre for academics and family genealogists alike as thousands signed online petitions and Facebook pages through the weekend.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said even he was unhappy — and it was his decision.
“To reduce public access to the historical records of this state was not arrived at without great consternation,” Kemp said. “I will fight during this legislative session [starting in January] to have this cut restored so the people will have a place to meet, research and review the historical records of Georgia.”
Effective Nov. 1, only limited public appointments will be available to see the state’s important and historical records dating to at least 1733. In addition, the archives’ staff of 10 full-time employees will likely be reduced.
State law mandates the archives be accessible at least every Saturday. But officials aren’t sure there will be access on other days of the week.
Kemp expects the move to save the bulk of more than $730,000, enough to satisfy a proposed cut in his office budget going into next year. Gov. Nathan Deal has asked most state agencies to trim their budgets by 3 percent as he eyes Georgia’s sluggish economy, but those cuts must be approved by state lawmakers, who won’t take up the issue until at least January.
While it’s another sign of still-tough times for state government, many people who use the archives are feeling a personal pain.
“I think it’s devastating,” said Kaye Lanning Minchew of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives, which formed late last year after a series of nips and tucks left archive supporters wondering what would come next. “The state archive holds the records of the people. So how can you not be open to the public?”
Ironically, the state expects to issue a proclamation Wednesday to celebrate Archives Month in Georgia.
“For a mature society, these [archives] are sort of the hallmarks of civilization,” said Emory University’s Leslie Harris, a history and African American Studies professor who is working on a book about slavery in Savannah. “Of course there are materials in the archive we hope to use. These places are the attic for all of us, where memories are stored.”
The issue goes beyond the historians, researchers and amateur history buffs who have traveled to the Clayton County campus where the archive is housed.
The official record of Georgia also resides within its walls. Therefore, archivists say, so resides a transparency about how state government worked over the last few centuries, and how it works now.
According to Minchew, who is also executive director of the Troup County Archives and Legacy Museum on Main in LaGrange:
- State officials have used a 1787 agreement kept at the archive to settle a Savannah River boundary dispute with South Carolina.
- Cobb County has used archived Georgia Department of Transportation maps to establish property rights of way for utilities.
- Georgia Pacific has used archived environmental records to determine the type of air filter for burner smoke stacks in Warm Springs.
“The cornerstone of democracy is the ability of citizens to know what their government is doing,” Georgia Historical Society President Todd Groce said Friday. “You can’t completely restrict and shut down access.”
The decision puts Georgia in a uniquely unflattering position by making it the only state in the nation without a place for people to have full-time, centrally located access to hundreds of thousands of government and state documents, photographs and historical records.
Georgia’s archives already offered the fewest hours in the nation. Once open more than 40 hours a week, the institution, located in Morrow, has been getting by with 17 since last year.
Mississippi offers public hours six days a week. South Carolina Archives does five days. Alabama’s archives are open four days a week plus every second Saturday.
“This is not the way we want Georgia to be known,” said Marie Force, archivist for Delta Air Lines and president of the Society of Georgia Archivists.
It’s unlikely the protests will have much of an effect before the change takes place. But the issue has galvanized archive supporters into action, with one petition by Saturday afternoon signed by more than 7,100 people from across the nation.