English: Great Seal of the State of Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a press release issued last Thursday, 13 September, Georgia's Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced that the state archives would close due to budget cuts. "After November 1st, the public will only be allowed to access the building by appointment; however, the number of appointments could be limited based on the schedule of the remaining employees." As of yesterday, 7 of the 10 staff members were given notice that they would lose their jobs at that time.
The Friends of Georgia's Archives and History are the best resource for updates but also the central HQ for activism & elegance on the subject. Their 'ACTION ALERT' for advocating on behalf of archival access makes a clear case against Kemp's decision. Conveniently, ironically, we can organize the three main points of the Action Alert under Georgia's State Motto:
- WISDOM: Access to records now avoids even more expensive legal fees later. It upsets the due process of law, since easy access to the documents held in the archive are a basic component of land claims, boundary disputes, utility right-of-way, claims against state agencies. On top of that the Secretary of State himself has noted that even limited access to the archives will still cost millions a year to rent.
- JUSTICE: According to State Law (Georgia Records Act, Title 50 Chapter 18 Article 4 section 70(b), whew) it is a legal right for individuals to have access to public records. Restricting hours to appointment only is completely "contrary to the practice of government transparency".
- MODERATION: The Secretary was required to decrease his annual spending by 3%. That 3% is the entirety of the Archives budget rather than a combination of cuts. There are many gruesome ways of visualizing this kind of economics: lopping off limbs rather than trimming the fat is one of them.
There has been an outcry from archivists and librarians from blog to shining blog, and the American Libraries Association has issued a press release condemning the closure:
"The Georgia Archives is a treasure trove of unique documents and official records. As one of the original 13 colonies, Georgia has a rich and colorful history. Events of historic importance continue to occur. The State of Georgia established the Archives to preserve the history of Georgia, and access to that resource is vitally important to the future of Georgia and its citizens."
There is a large spectrum of scholars who suffer from such a drastic action: historians of the South from Professor James C. Cobb of the University of Georgia, to local genealogy researches, historical re-enactment societies, and families interested in their own history. And lest we forget, 21 September is the Civil War Sesquicetennial.
Archives are an important component of civic life, counting forward from the records of Colonial American days which enrich our understanding of the past, to the present need for easy access to legal documents, court rulings, marriage certificates, mortgages and deeds. Between the two, this archive is in constant use.
The outer limits of the need for access to are no less vital. Rachel Maddow recently reported, for instance, on Jeff Thigpen's use of local archives in Greensboro, North Carolina to challenge potentially fraudulent signatures filed by banks and mortgage companies and used to take away homes from families during the housing crisis. Thigpen: "Public recording
offices are part of our democracy in rule of law and the laws that govern them need to be respected". These are exactly the same documents that closing the Georgia archives would place under lock and key. Each document has a role to play in local culture and local administration, and in the extreme case of Greensboro and many other counties across the United States, in preserving local dignity.
Georgia would be the first state to close its archives, but seen in a more threatening light, it would be the first state to set the precedent that it is okay to close the archives, to deny citizens access to historical and legal documents. For this reason a petition at Change.org to the Governor of the state has collected over 13,000 signatures so far, and you can add yours here. You can also contact the Governor by e-mail.
UPDATE (20 September 2012):
The Clayton News Daily has reported that Governor Deal announced Wednesday evening that the archives would remain open for now, without providing further details as to how. The news was a surprise to protestors who had confronted the Governor with a print-out of the 13,000 strong petition against closure, as well as the Secretary of State himself:
Making a promise to keep the archives open is different from actually fulfilling that promise, however. Kemp said the funding issue still has to be addressed. He added the governor did not tell him about his pledge before it was made. Kemp's office oversees the archives operations.
"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.
Nothing has been guaranteed. Watch this space for more information.