Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

September 14, 2012

Georgia: Closing for Study

Filed under: American History,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 11:39 am

By now, many of our readers have probably seen the announcement from Georgia that the State Archives will largely close effective November 1 as part of a round of state budget cuts. Some number of the staff (as yet unspecified) will be laid off, and the archives will only be available on a by-appointment basis, also on a yet-to-be-determined basis once the Archives figures out its eventual staffing levels. This is disastrous news on many levels, and the reaction in the social media world (at least the small part that I inhabit) has been swift and fierce in lambasting the decision. There is already an online petition to the Governor to keep the archives open.

To be clear, Georgia is not going from forty hours per week to zero, but rather from seventeen hours to none—the archive’s public reading room is currently open only on Friday and Saturdays. As Rob Townsend of the AHA pointed out on Twitter, Georgia is already getting an F for public access to information. But the end of public access except in very limited cases is still disappointing, and it’s heartening to see that so many are already taking action.

From my perspective, it seems important (without being too alarmist) to catalog exactly how damaging the prospect of losing access to a state’s archives is and just how many constituencies will be affected.

  • Historians will lose even more access to the public records of Georgia – the papers of the governors and executive offices, records of the legislatures, the courts, and a range of other records.
  • Genealogists will lose access to records to trace family lineage, whether through court records or local county, city, and town records held by the state.
  • Lawyers will have more difficulty accessing public records for their casework.
  • Government agencies in Georgia will have more difficulty getting access to records.
  • Journalists, non-governmental organizations, and others interested in learning more about the operations of the state will have a harder time getting to the documents they need.

This decision, therefore, is not just about historians, though we will feel the pain. It damages a wide swath of people interested in finding out more about Georgia.

What that means from a historian’s perspective is that the decision will also hurt Georgia itself. Politicians may not be thrilled about journalists checking up on them, but it makes it harder to talk about Georgia in history, political science, and so on. Georgia’s public colleges and universities have a Georgia history requirement—how is that history to be written and studied without access to the documents?

In colonial American history, Georgia often seems marginalized – it was founded late in the colonizing game, it was small relative to most of the other colonies, and it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. I can’t speak for other periods (the Civil Rights movement would be one issue on which I assume Georgia gets more significant coverage), but that lack of coverage will only be exacerbated if it’s difficult to get the documents. In other words, if nothing else, this decision—if it holds and remains the case—could have a long-term impact on how Georgia demonstrates civic pride.

Or to put it another way: I learned a skit in elementary school (and I’m sure many others did too) that’s known as the “Lamppost Skit.” A man is looking for his wallet under a lamppost, and drags three, four, five other people under the light to help him look. Frustrated, one of them finally says, “Are you sure it’s here?” “Oh no,” he replies, pointing the distance. “It’s over there—but the light’s so much better here.” The Georgia Archive has posted an online exhibition called Vanishing Georgia to display historical photographs. With this decision, that exhibit’s title and message becomes more poignant and more prescient.

Note: I have not personally done work at the Georgia State Archives, but I would appreciate if those of you who have would share your experiences and what you accomplished there in the comments. We need to get the word out in whatever way possible about what access means.

UPDATE (Sept. 18, 2:30 p.m.): The AHA has issued its formal response to the Archives closure, a letter from Executive Director James Grossman to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.

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September 11, 2012

Watching History Unfold in Real Time

Filed under: 2012 Elections,American History,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 2:19 pm

I wrote about the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on my Facebook page this morning, but I’d like to share my thoughts in a more public forum, in large part because I’ve been thinking about September 11 more and more through the years from the vantage point of a professional historian observing the development of public memory and history in real time.

What has struck me this week and today especially is that we seem to be moving into a second phase of public memory, one in which the event has become a bit more distant and is beginning to shift away from the visceral and universal commemorations of the first ten years. Marking a decade since the attacks last year seemed like we’d come to some sort of round number that could allow most of us to exhale (in a way). That doesn’t hold for everyone, of course, as each experiences it in his or her own way, not to mention that I was blessed not to know anyone personally who died. But as a collective and public matter, we are starting to transition from remembering the event as something that happened to us to recalling it as something that happened to us in a slightly different time.

This year when the names of victims were read at the World Trade Center site, no politicians were present, only family members. While many newspapers covered the anniversary, the New York Times notably excluded it from its front page this morning. The President and First Lady observed a moment of silence from the lawn of the White House, but unlike four years ago, when Senators Obama and McCain appeared together at the New York ceremony, President Obama and Governor Romney will not meet today, though each participated in remembrances.

At the same time, debates have continued about what to do at the site of the World Trade Center. The “Freedom Tower” has been downsized in name if not in height to simply “One World Trade Center.” And until today there was still a dispute between the city and the state of New York over funding for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

For those of us old enough to remember, we always will – I know that I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the planes, when I first saw that the towers had fallen, the weather that day (which is true for many, it seems). But after eleven years, many Americans simply don’t remember. Of my students, about half are freshmen, and they were only in the second grade in 2001. What will they remember first-hand about that day? My guess for many (based on my memories of being seven years old) is not a whole lot. And their numbers will only grow over time. For my son, 9/11 will always be history.

The process is necessary and inevitable. Our collective memory of Pearl Harbor, for instance, or the Kennedy assassination, has changed dramatically over time as those events have receded in time, as new people with no direct connection have grown up and as those who had one have departed the scene.

As a historian (though not of public memory, to be honest), what I find fascinating is watching this process happen in real time. I’ve read and taught Alfred Young’s work on George Robert Twelves Hewes and the memory of the American Revolution, followed Kevin Levin’s blog Civil War Memory, and read and discussed countless other works about memory and events in American history, but this is a story unfolding before my eyes, and in which I am a participant. And while the process is inevitable, it must in many ways be organic. Did you know, for example, that today is Patriot Day? I didn’t remember that, and only recalled because someone saw it on a calendar and asked me the difference between it and Patriot’s Day (the commemoration in Massachusetts of Lexington and Concord that occurs each April). Despite Congress’s efforts to retitle the day, everyone remembers it simply as September 11 or 9/11. And even that may shift over time, as it becomes necessary to explain what the date means to people for whom it never had the significance which we attach to it.

In total, it’s a reminder to me to think carefully about how we approach both the past and the present, to be sensitive to historical processes, and to put arguments today into a rich context that recognizes a shifting field of memory.

It may also prompt me to ask my students about their memories when I see them tomorrow morning.

NOTE: Kevin Levin was interviewed this morning for an NPR segment on remembrance and healing. It’s a fascinating listen if you have a few minutes.

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