Monday, October 1, 2012

Future of the Georgia Archives is still uncertain

Today is the first day of American Archives Month, and the news out of Georgia remains deeply worrisome.  Two weeks ago, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced that, in response to a directive to cut his agency's expenditures by 3 percent, the Georgia Archives will be closed to the public effective 1 November.  Shortly afterward, news that Kemp was planning to lay off 7 of the Georgia Archives' 10 employees ricocheted around various listservs and social media sites; appalling as this news is, it takes on added resonance when one remembers that that as recently as 2006, the Georgia Archives had a staff of 47.

A few days after Secretary Kemp made this announcement, Governor Nathan Deal raised the hopes of family historians, scholars, attorneys, land surveyors, scientists, and other users of the Georgia Archives when he stated that the Georgia Archives would remain open.  However, in Georgia the office of the Secretary of State and the office of Governor are constitutionally separate, and Governor Deal doesn't have the authority to rescind layoff notices issued by the Secretary of State or to dictate how the Secretary of State expends its allocated funds.  Secretary Kemp opted to make the Georgia Archives bear the entire brunt of the 3 percent budget cut; other divisions overseen by the Secretary of State will continue to operate as they did before the budget cut was announced.

Georgia's legislature is ultimately responsible for approving the proposed budget cuts, but the next legislative session won't begin until January -- well after the layoffs go into effect.

As of 1 November, anyone seeking access to the holdings of the Georgia Archives will have to make an appointment in advance -- and might not be able to secure one in a timely manner.  At the time of this writing, the Web site of the Secretary of State indicates -- unsurprisingly -- that "the number of appointments could be limited based on the schedule of the remaining employees."

What a wretched state of affairs.  As noted above, the holdings of the Georgia Archives are used by a wide array of users.  Some are interested in the histories of their families.  Some are scientists trying to figure out how to best to reintroduce the American chestnut in Georgia.  Some are local historians conducting research in connection with the Civil War sesquicentennial -- and helping to pave the way for an influx of tourist dollars into the state's coffers.  Some are lawyers -- in many instances representing the State of Georgia or one of its local governments -- preparing for trial.  If they can't obtain the records they need in a timely manner, the state and its localities will likely be forced to enter into costly out of court settlements even if they are squarely in the right.

Moreover, reducing the staff of the Georgia Archives to a mere three people will have devastating effects.  There's simply no way three people can respond to more than a handful of inquiries at any given time.  Moreover, the Georgia Archives, which has already suffered crippling hemorrhages of expertise, is going to lose even more of its institutional knowledge.  We archivists struggle mightily to pour our knowledge of our holdings into finding aids, MARC records, and accession files, but as yet there's no substitute for deep familiarity with the content and quirks of one's own holdings.  This familiarity comes slowly and once lost it's incredibly hard to reconstruct. 

Finally, one can't help but wonder about the long-term effects of the closure and layoffs upon Georgia's historical record.  When people think of historical records, they think of linen or cotton paper bearing elaborate handwriting, ornately bound record books, and manuscript maps.  They don't think of the masses of paper records created ten years ago or the ever-increasing number of digital files that Georgia's state agencies and local governments create in the course of conducting the people's business.  However, some of these records are every bit as valuable as those record books and manuscript documents, and the Georgia Archives is responsible for working with records creators to identify records of enduring value, ensure that they are managed properly, and arrange for their eventual transfer to the archives.  There's simply no way that three people can simultaneously provide access to the existing holdings of the Georgia Archives, provide records management guidance to local governments and state agencies, and continue to take in new accessions of archival records and make them accessible to researchers.

(By the way, Georgia is not the only state affected by such challenges.  Last week, Kim Severson of the New York Times asserted in a must-read article that "an amalgam of recession-driven budget cuts and fast-moving technological changes could result in a black hole of [state] government information whose impact might not be understood for decades.")

In honor of American Archives Month, I encourage you to do the following:
  • Sign the online petition Leave Our State Archives Open to the Public.  You do not have to be a Georgia resident to do so.
  • "Like" the Facebook group Georgians Against Closing State Archives, which has been a consistently excellent source of up-to-date information about the impending closure and the struggle against it.  (It's also a great source of protest cartoons, among them the cartoon featured at the start of this post).
  • Check out the Web site of Friends of Georgia Archives and History, which has been instrumental in coordinating the campaign against the Georgia Archives' closure.  (Pay particular attention to the slideshow presentation outlining the importance of the Georgia Archives -- its clarity, coherence, and visual attractiveness make it a useful model for other advocacy efforts.)
  • If you're going to be in Atlanta on 3 October, attend the "Support the Archives / Save the Seven" rally that will be held in the State Capitol Rotunda at noon.
  • Write letters to Governor Deal and Secretary of State Kemp or call their offices and explain why you object to the closing of the Georgia Archives.  Letters and phone calls still mean a lot to politicians.  If you need some help composing your letter or preparing your comments, be sure to check out the action alert issued by the National Coalition for History.
  • If you're a Georgia resident, call or write your state senator and assembly representative.  All of Georgia's legislators serve two-year terms, and there's an election coming up in a few weeks.  Now really is the time to make your concerns known to them.  The Society of Georgia Archivists has put together a series of handy tips for legislative contacts.


Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing..

malar said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

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