It is Saturday morning. People are enjoying the first day of autumn. For many people it was a day of football games, yard work and relaxation.
Others – professional researchers and amateur family sleuths – are in Morrow at the Georgia Archives. They arrived before the doors opened at 8:30 a. m. and will leave reluctantly at 5 p.m. They are working frantically to take advantage of one of only two days available to them.
After today there are five more Saturdays until Nov. 1, the date Secretary of State Brian Kemp has set for the closing of the Archives to the public.
Yes, Secretary Kemp said people would be able to get into the Archives by appointment. That was the day before he announced that seven of the 10 employees were being terminated. Remaining are the director (who came to the Archives from Alabama in May), the building superintendent and one excellent, veteran archivist.
That means there will be one person who knows the collection well enough to handle research questions effectively.
Research in Georgia requires access to the Georgia Archives. Many of the records cannot be found anywhere else. Thorough research takes time. How many people will be lucky enough to get appointments? How long will each person be allowed to stay? Will a researcher wait for a month to get an appointment, then be asked to leave when his two hours are up? Two hours is hardly worth the drive from anywhere in metro Atlanta, certainly not from other areas of the state.
How many professionals will default on contracts because they cannot meet deadlines or complete work at all?
A great many research requests actually come from state government. It is not an unreasonable assumption that those requests will have priority. How will that impact the ability of the private citizen to get an appointment?
Although Secretary Kemp obviously disagrees, such an appointment system does not appear to meet Georgia’s legal mandate (Georgia Public Records and Open Records Act 50-18-70) that requires that records be “open for a personal inspection by any citizen of this state at a reasonable time and place…”
Pointing fingers of blame is not a useful exercise, and there is plenty to go around – even to the citizens of Georgia. Great numbers of Georgians responded quickly, purposefully and commendably to Secretary Kemp’s fateful announcement on Sept. 13. During the last three years, however, as the staff and hours shrunk, only a few diehards haunted the capitol.
Ironically, at a well-attended ceremony last week Gov. Nathan Deal proclaimed October Archives Month in Georgia. He delighted the crowd of supporters with the announcement that he would find the money to keep the Archives open. The announcement made the Governor the hero (for the moment, at least) and had to have chafed the Secretary of State, who has been taking considerable heat on this issue.
Many assume that the Archives has been “saved” and the battle is over.
But, what exactly, does the Governor have in mind? Will he find enough emergency stop-gap funding to keep the Archives open and make it possible for Secretary Kemp to reinstate the seven employees? Will he keep the Archives open, but with only three employees? Archives employees serve at the pleasure of the Secretary of State. The Secretary is a constitutional officer, not an employee of the Governor.
Will the Governor figure a way to re-work the budget he submits to the legislature, thereby allowing the Archives to close and re-open next spring?
If the Nov. 1 deadline passes with no resolution, the seven will be gone. Even if a way is found to save those valuable employees, many of them are likely to leave before then. This would result in a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge. It would take new-hires, even qualified archivists, many years to learn the collection well enough to be effective.
Athens librarian Laura W. Carter made an analogy to the retail store where the clerk is not familiar enough with the merchandise to understand the request or find what is needed. Such a scenario is made all the worse at the Archives because the “customer” (the Georgia citizen) already owns the “merchandise. “
If the Archives closes, Georgia will the only state without public access hours. Even if service remains the same, Georgia will have the fewest hours of any archives in the nation.
Secretary Kemp opted to take all of the mandated three percent cut from the Archives, instead of spreading the grief to all of his divisions. The Archives needs a relatively small amount – $730,000 – to maintain the current level of service. That amounts to a little more than 13 cents for every Georgia citizen.
Just like Georgia families, the government must prioritize expenditures. Finding $730,000 certainly won’t move the Archives to the top of the state spending list. But it will be enough to tide over this important agency – perhaps until the state’s economic picture improves.
The future of the Archives remains uncertain. Advocates need to hold Gov. Deal to his promise. They need to urge Secretary Kemp to keep the seven, at least until after the legislative session, and contact their local legislators to express their support for a reasonable funding solution.
Vivian Price Saffold, board member, Georgia Genealogical Society