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Crawford: State closes the door on history to Georgians

POSTED: September 19, 2012 1:00 a.m.

One of the saddest bits of news I’ve seen in a while was an announcement last week from the office of Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

To comply with an order from the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget to cut spending by $730,000, Kemp will lay off most employees of the state archives and close the facility to access by the general public on Nov. 1.

After that date, anyone who wants to look at the state’s historic records — some of which date back to 1733 — will have to make an appointment. Those appointments will be limited because there won’t be many employees still working at the archives.

If you want to do genealogical research on your family tree or review an historic document as part of your research for a book or thesis, you will just have to hope that one of the remaining employees at the archives may be able to let you make an appointment.

Budget cuts over the years have left the archives so destitute that it now has only 10 full-time employees, where it once had 90. The archives, located adjacent to Clayton State College in Morrow, is currently open to the public only on Fridays and Saturdays.

After Nov. 1, Georgia will be the only state without an archives that’s accessible to the general public.

Kemp can make some plausible arguments for closing the facility. His office oversees the issuance of state licenses for such professionals as physicians, private detectives and cosmetologists. As the state’s chief elections officer, he also has a rather important election coming up on Nov. 6 that has to be administered. If you’ve got a limited supply of budget dollars, those things obviously have to be done.

“We have tried to protect the services that the agency provides in support of putting people to work, starting small businesses, and providing public safety,” Kemp said.

Even so, one of the secretary of state’s traditional duties has always been the preservation of the state’s historic artifacts, including the Great Seal of Georgia. By closing the archives to the general public, which really closes a door on our state’s history, it seems to me that Kemp is abandoning one of the most important responsibilities of his office.

It is also embarrassing that a state as large and prominent as Georgia won’t even spend $730,000 to keep its archives open to the public for a couple of days a week, especially when you consider what our elected officials do fund with our tax money.

The governor and the legislature allocated $20 million several years ago for a “Go Fish” program that built new boat ramps around the state and a “fishing education center” in Perry near then-Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Houston County residence.

This was an important expenditure, Perdue said, because it was going to attract national bass fishing tournaments to Georgia and enhance the state’s economic development by boosting tourism.

There haven’t been many pro bass tournaments and the fishing education center, which was supposed to draw 100,000 visitors a year, hasn’t attracted nearly that many.

Legislators also put $10 million in the budget in 2010 to help build a College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. The hall of fame, which has yet to break ground, is not even a state agency; it’s a private real estate project that got $10 million in taxpayers’ assistance.

To sum up: We can spend $20 million for boat ramps and $10 million for a tourist attraction that might not even be built, but we don’t have $730,000 to keep the archives open so Georgians might have access to the historical records of their great state. That doesn’t sound like a smart use of tax money.

Why should we even care about losing touch with our history? Because it matters.

“Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change,” wrote Peter N. Stearns of George Mason University.
That study will be a little more difficult for Georgians after Nov. 1, and it shouldn’t be that way.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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