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.