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State archives limits felt locally
Supporters decry decreased access to vital records due to budget restrictions
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Rally to support state archives
Where: Georgia State Capitol, 206 Washington Street SW, Atlanta
When: Noon-1 p.m. Wednesday

Access to more than 280 years of Georgia records and information soon will be limited.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced plans to lay off workers and require appointments at the Georgia State Archives in Morrow starting Nov. 1. Currently, the facility is open two days a week.

Kemp has said he’s unhappy about the decision, but it was necessary to help his office trim more than $730,000 from its budget. Gov. Nathan Deal has asked most state agencies to identify budget cuts equal to 3 percent of their current funding for his proposed spending plan next year. Those cuts require approval by state lawmakers after the legislature reconvenes in January.

Deal pledged two weeks ago to keep the archives open. The governor’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, wrote in an email Wednesday that “we’ll have to wait on the budget process to see how this works out.”

He said what happens in the meantime is up to Kemp’s office, which has sole authority over the archives.

As lawmakers work through the budgetary decisions, local residents and organizations who use the archives are preparing themselves for the worst.

Closing the history books

Oakwood resident Pat Jones knows the state archives well. She’s spent hours using them to compile information for her nine books, four on Hall County’s past. Jones has even driven people down to Morrow to help them with genealogy research.

During her trips, Jones said she never once felt the archives were not being used.

“It seemed like there were a lot of people in there using it,” she said. “There was always a line of people wanting the microfilm machines and the books.”

Jones said she first thought the news of the cutbacks was a gag.

“When I first saw that ... I said ‘Oh come on, this is not April the first; this is not funny,’” she recalled, adding that a trip to the archives’ website confirmed the changes.

Now, she’s worried the decision will hinder her ability to write and Georgia’s ability to reflect. With appointment-only access, and fewer than five employees, Jones feels it will be extremely difficult to get work done, if she can even get an appointment.

“I think it’s not going to work too well because those staff people ... are for microfilming documents,” she said.“Now if they’re going to be microfilming documents, I don’t think you’re going to get too many appointments.
“So it’s going to hurt me when I’m trying to write my books.”

Genealogy enthusiast Bob Conner also is worried about how the reduced access could hurt people wanting to research their family history.

“I’ve been tracing my family tree for 50 years and after I found out I could get to the archives, I started going down there a lot,” he said. “There’s just so much information there that you need, especially for a person just starting tracing their family.”

Conner said he understands there are other places you can get some background from, but the Georgia Archives are “just a treasure” of information.

“There’s always information from our and other states that’s housed there. You just don’t find that elsewhere,” he said. “I know the economy is bad, but there’s lots of place that I think they should be able to cut other than the archives.”

Jones said if funding really is the issue, then she believes there’s a way to keep the facility open.

“I wouldn’t have a problem if they had a day-use charge,” she said, adding that she’s talked with others who reflected that sentiment. “If it’s money (that’s the problem), it wouldn’t solve everything, but it would certainly help.”

‘Incredible sense of frustration’

Glen Kyle, managing director of the Northeast Georgia History Center, said his organization has garnered an “incredible sense of frustration” in trying to work with the archives’ limited access.

In the past, the center has made use of the “many great resources” at the archives to get copies of past documents or photos for exhibits, Kyle said. Recently, the center has not been able to get many records because Georgia Archives are only open two days a week.

“Basically, because of the cuts that have been done to the archives and the incredibly limited access, we have found it very difficult to make use of them at all,” he said.

Most Americans have a desire to research the past, especially individually, Kyle said. However, if the archives facility is closed or limited, it could hurt people’s efforts to explore the past.

“Genealogists are one of the strongest supporters and folks who need the archives the most,” he said. “For the average person, they think they don’t need (the archives) ... and by the time they realize they need it, it may be too late to have it.”

Kyle said he would like lawmakers to expand access to the archives, a move he said will benefit everyone.

“I hope Gov. Deal finds a way to keep it open. I hope that Gov. Deal and the entire state leadership of Georgia find ways to enhance and increase access to the archives and to keep our historic sites and heritage relevant,” he said.  “I believe that Georgia has a fantastic history that we can appreciate and learn from ... but it’s hard to research, celebrate and learn about it.”

Kyle said the state has a history of not valuing archives.

“Basically, the state of Georgia is one of the most unkind and unsupportive for state history and heritage,” he said. “It’s no person’s fault. It’s no party’s fault. Just for some reason, for decades state leadership has placed no value on maintaining these (historic) sites and records or who we are and where we come from.

“It’s almost an uphill battle to drag the state to see it’s important.”

A group effort

A year before the Kemp announced the changes, the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives was formed. The coalition, a collection of archival, historical and genealogical groups from around the state, wanted to lobby lawmakers to increase access.

“This winter we were meeting with legislators,” said co-chairwoman Kaye Minchew. “We actually felt real good that we got an extra $67,000 last year, and then this happened, which we find devastating.”

Using meetings and breakfasts, the group has been methodically working to show others why the Georgia Archives matter, Minchew said.

“It’s important on so many different fronts,” she said, adding that the group has heard from land surveyors, environmental activists and even attorneys who have all mentioned how crucial the records are to their jobs.

“Even though the state doesn’t have a lot money to spend (on the archives), they need to find it,” Minchew said. “Even at two days a week, we’re open the fewest hours out of archives in the South. For Georgia, which was one of the 13 original states, it’s terrible.”

The group also wants the state to keep the seven State Archives employees it plans to lay off Nov. 1. While she understand departments have needed to downsize, 10 employees is “the bare minimum” the archives can function with, Minchew said. Minchew said the archives had more than 150 workers in the 1980s.

On Sept. 19, members of the coalition were on hand as Deal declared it Archive Month in Georgia. During that time he also affirmed his support for keeping the archives open.

“When the governor looks you in the eyes and says ‘I want to keep the archives open,’ I was delighted,” Minchew said. “We still hadn’t heard any details.”

Minchew said the group met with lawmakers Friday and said it was “very encouraging.”

“We think the State Archives will be in good shape come March when the governor’s supplemental budget goes into effect,” she said. “So now what we’re worried about is what happens between Nov. 1 and early March.

“We don’t know how it’s going to stay open, but we hope that the governor’s office is busy working on things.”

The coalition itself is exploring options, including fundraising and grants, to keep the archives open, but Minchew stressed those would be temporarily and not ideal.

“In general, I’m in opposed to having to fundraise to keep a government agency open,” she said, adding that archive supporters will be holding a rally at the state capitol from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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