The last two weeks have been filled with emotional conversation about the Georgia Archives.
After Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s announcement that he would close the Archives to the public and terminate seven of the agency’s 10 employees, supporters around the state rallied, aided by media coverage and facilitated by the speed of social media and email.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s ironically-timed ceremony at which he proclaimed October as Archives Month gave him an opportune platform from which to announce that he would find funding to keep the Archives open. Supporters, predictably, were ecstatic.
There were no details, and since the proclamation, the governor has remained silent. The Secretary of State stands by his decision to close the Archives and terminate the employees. As a constitutional officer, Kemp has complete control over his department’s personnel.
Word quickly spread, and advocates breathed a sigh of relief: the governor stepped in and “saved the Archives.” The protest was successful, the crisis averted. Time to move on.
After the initial euphoria, however, thoughtful supporters have begun to realize that the announcement might not have been the news they had been hoping for.
Will the Governor use emergency funds to maintain Archives service at the current level – with 10 employees? Will the Archives remain open, but with only three employees? Will the Governor exempt the Archives from cuts in the coming year’s budget or reduce the amount of cuts? Depending on the answers, the Archives could close as planned on Nov. 1 and to re-open after the legislative session, possibly with three staffers or inexperienced new-hires.
The Archives currently is open only two days a week. Users could face even more inconvenient – potentially impossible – access to records, if staff is cut or the Archives closed. Secretary Kemp apparently believes that a system of appointments satisfies the state Open Meetings law, which mandates “reasonable” access. That is a matter for debate and perhaps for the courts.
The state-of-the-art facility in Morrow was designed for only one purpose: the careful preservation of millions documents and artifacts. Its staff has been trained to carry out that mission, as well as to assist the public.
The Georgia Archives is not just a resource for hobby genealogists and history buffs or the repository for evidence of our cultural history. Professionals from lawyers to watchdogs to authors to government officials rely on the records, often to aid Georgia citizens.
Access to records held at the Archives is vital to transparent government. Not having “reasonable” access to these records will prevent citizens from learning about what decisions were made, when and why.
All Georgia departments have been ordered by the Governor to cut another three percent from their budgets for the coming year. Of course, after several years of cuts, there are no easy choices. Secretary Kemp chose to take all $730,000 from the Archives, leaving other divisions untouched. This small amount is all that stands between closure and maintaining the current level of service.
If the Archives closes, Georgia will rank 50th among states in terms of access to the records that belong to its citizens. It will be the only Archives in the nation without public hours – a shameful statistic.
The governor, the secretary and the state legislature need to hear from Georgia citizens that this is not acceptable.
The struggle to keep the Archives open and the staff in place is not over.
Vivian Price Saffold is a former newspaper editor and author of two books on DeKalb County history. She is a member of the board of the Georgia Genealogical Society and the chairman of the Advisory Committee of the R. J. Taylor Foundation, which funds genealogical publications. She lives in Chamblee, Ga.