In light of this week’s news that Georgia’s Secretary of State plans to close the state archives to the public on November 1, 2012, Buffy asked if I would share my thoughts on the value of archives and why people should care.
I’ve worked in archives since 1996, and sometimes I forget that not everyone knows what archives hold and what archivists do. In brief, archives keep important documents and make them accessible. Some archives, such as the one in which I work, hold records of a specific institution. Some have local history and genealogy. Others hold local, state, or national government records. Many have combinations of these types of collections. Although some records may be restricted or sealed, the goal of archivists is to provide access to the things they can share, not to hoard the records away in darkness.
Budget cuts within the state of Georgia, though, may mean that the state’s records will no longer be available to the public except by appointment. The state archives, already operating with only a skeleton crew, will cease to be open even two days per week. (If the Secretary of State has his way, the archives will absorb the brunt of his department’s 3% ($732,626) cuts although other areas under his domain will still exist: Corporations, Professional Licensing Boards, and Elections.) What does this mean to the people of Georgia? Why should they care if a state agency closes to the public?
For starters, the preamble to the state’s constitution says that it was ordained and established “to perpetuate the principles of free government, ensure justice to all, preserve peace, promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family, and transmit to posterity the enjoyment of liberty.” Let’s look at that charge through an archival lens.
- How can we “perpetuate the principles of free government, ensure justice to all, [and] preserve peace” if we don’t know what those principles have been? We must have access to our governmental records, our history, in order to know where we’ve come from. Thomas Jefferson said that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” We have to maintain our records and share their contents in order to make sure we are offering justice to the widest possible group.
- The next section says that we are to “promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family.” In addition to our basic rights of freedom and justice, we are entitled to pursue our happiness and follow our interests. For many Georgians, one of these interests is genealogy. We want to know not only where we’ve come from as a state, but also as individuals and families. Genealogists are fierce and frequent users of archival resources. In fact, one of the reasons for building the state archives next to the National Archives Southeast Region office was to enable genealogists to conduct their research more easily. The shared, free parking was seen as a benefit to this user group. The fact that the resources were placed on a university campus was seen as a boon to scholars. Does anyone remember that the citizens of Georgia were excited about these new facilities and offerings?
- The third part of the preamble says that our constitution exists to “transmit to posterity the enjoyment of liberty.” Again, I would ask how we can share liberty with posterity if we don’t provide access to the documents that enforce that liberty. Even the website of the state archives says that it “identifies and preserves Georgia’s most valuable historical documents.” Denying access to those makes no sense to me.
I would add a variety of points from the state archives’ site on why they exist (including legislative support and property rights) and the documents they hold (including the Royal Charter of the Colony of Georgia). However, I believe that you are capable of investigating these things on your own. I would ask that you spend your time reviewing these items and then writing your legislators and other relevant officials to ask for their support in restoring these cuts to the state archives. In the words of George Santayana, “A country without a memory is a country of madmen.” I am certain the same is true for a state.