Mothballing Heritage: Closing the Georgia State Archives

Historical archaeologists have long recognized that some of the most compelling biographical and historical tales can be told about prosaic folks, and we understand that many of those people who we think we know best have complicated and even challenging biographies.  Imagine the complex accounts of American life that could be spun around the life stories of Jimmy Carter, Ty Cobb, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Button Gwinnett, Fanny Kemble, Margaret Mitchell, James Ogelthorpe, Ma Rainey, Otis Redding, and Alice Walker.  That seemingly random assortment of people includes the mother of the blues, an American President, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a reviled gangster, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Their common link is that they spent most of their lives in Georgia, the last of the original 13 colonies, one of the seven original Confederate States, and one of the centers of the civil rights movement.  Now imagine that the historical records of Georgia spanning nearly three centuries, including the details of all these famous figures and countless more people, were suddenly removed from the community’s reach.  This is in fact the quite startling threat that now faces archaeologists, genealogists, and historians who were shocked when the Georgia Secretary of State announced that the State Archives would lay off seven of its 10 full-time employees on November 1st and discontinue public hours.  In his September 13th press release announcing the closing, Secretary of State Brian Kemp (whose office administers the Archives) somewhat awkwardly and optimistically admitted that appointments to access the Archives “could be limited based on the schedule of the remaining employees.”  Should this proposal be approved, Georgia will be the only state in the country with such restrictive access to state archival records, effectively closing one of the nation’s first State Archives (opened in 1918) and balancing a $732,626 budget reduction entirely on the state’s archives budget.  Anybody wanting access to such records will be required to arrange an appointment amongst a flood of genealogists following new leads, neighbors documenting property lines, lawyers tracing historical precedents, and archaeologists researching sites throughout the state and region.

Kemp indicated in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the “Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) instructed my office to reduce our budget by 3 percent ($732,626) for the coming year,” outlining the fiscal realities that face many archives, cultural institutions, and arts organizations facing a quite difficult financial climate.  In September, 2010 the Archives had gone from a five-day week to a three-day week as a cost-cutting move, and it eventually moved to being open only on Fridays and Saturdays before the recent decision to close the facility.  After November 1st the remaining archives’ employees will be responsible for nearly every dimension of archival maintenance in an operation Kemp indicated is currently “unsustainable,” ranging from monitoring air conditioning in the building (leased for $2.7 million each year) to entering new material into storage to administering patrons visiting the archives on appointments.  Kemp acknowledged that this move essentially “mothballed” the state’s archives and reduced the staff to only monitoring the most critical state documents.  Since the State Archives received 14,624 reference questions in 2010, we can reasonably assume that even the three most energetic archivists in the world cannot manage even a modest trickle of those requests and the state will essentially provide no access to public records.

The news that the Archive would now be open only by appointment was greeted with a flood of complaints by a vast range of constituencies who use the Archives.  At a somewhat ironically timed signing for a proclamation marking Georgia Archives Month on September 19th, a back-tracking Governor Nathan Deal awkwardly indicated that “We’re still working on our budget proposals right now,” he said, “but the archives will stay open.”  Kemp cautioned afterwards, though, that “the governor did not tell him about his pledge before it was made. `If he funds it to keep it open, that’d be great,’ said Kemp.  The secretary explained Deal would have to `tell me we weren’t going to have to come up with a $733,000 cut’ in order to fulfill the promise to keep the archives’ doors open.”

This would be an exceptional loss for Georgia and the nation alike, and it risks taking fiscal sobriety to an exceptionally draconian level.  Archivists have pointed out that Georgia law does actually legally require the state to make all public records “open for a personal inspection by any citizen of this state at a reasonable time and place, and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen.”  Yet at an ethical level, archives make governmental processes transparent and accountable to citizens, so they are not merely research institutions.  Such a move essentially risks writing a whole state out of the nation’s historical narrative.  Such archives are not simply the province of a handful of scholars and genealogists; instead, a vast range of citizens documenting property transactions, legal actions, and community historical details consult the state’s archival resources.

A facebook page Georgians Against Closing State Archives has over 3200 followers today and includes links to Georgia state officials for those of us who can stress how important such resources are to myriad community scholars; an online petition has been posted on change.org; and the Friends of Georgia Archives and History have followed the discussion closely.  In the wake of the stunning cuts at Parks Canada and similar discussions throughout the country if not internationally, it is important for historical archaeologists and community scholars to register the profound consequence of such resources to all of us within and outside Georgia alike.  It is impossible to interpret the nation’s narrative if we remove one whole state and countless people’s stories from the historical record, so this risks being a profound loss for all of us who respect heritage.

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About Paul Mullins

I am Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI), President of the Society for Historical Archaeology (2012-2013), and Docent in American Historical Archaeology at the University of Oulu (Finland). I'm the author of Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture (1999) and The Archaeology of Consumer Culture (2011). All opinions are mine alone and do not represent the Society for Historical Archaeology or IUPUI.