ATLANTA — Scholars, amateur genealogists and history buffs are protesting a state official’s decision to drastically limit public access to the Georgia Archives, home to the state’s most important historical records dating to its founding as a British colony in 1733.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp said last week that the archives will be open to the public only by limited appointments as of Nov. 1. Over the weekend, thousands of angry people signed online petitions and “liked” Facebook pages created to protest the move, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday. One online petition had 7,100 supporters.
“I think it’s devastating,” said Kaye Lanning Minchew, of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives, which formed last year after less severe budget cuts left supporters worrying about the archives’ future. “The state archive holds the records of the people. So how can you not be open to the public?”
Kemp said that he’s unhappy about the decision but that 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. Ultimately those cuts require approval by state lawmakers after the Legislature reconvenes in January.
State law mandates the public have access to the archives at least every Saturday, though officials aren’t sure whether the archives will be able to stay open any other days. The archives’ staff of 10 full-time employees likely will be reduced.
“To reduce public access to the historical records of this state was not arrived at without great consternation,” Kemp said. “I will fight during this legislative session to have this cut restored so the people will have a place to meet, research and review the historical records of Georgia.”
Emory University history professor Leslie Harris said state archives like the one Georgia maintains in Clayton County are “sort of the hallmarks of civilization.” Harris is working on a book about slavery in Savannah and hopes to use the state archives for research.
“These places are the attic for all of us, where memories are stored,” Harris said.
Oddly, the decision to cut back on access to the archives comes as the state plans to issue a proclamation Wednesday designating “Archives Month in Georgia.”
The Georgia Archives already were open relatively few hours compared to others across the nation. Once open more than 40 hours a week, Georgia has been getting by with opening the archives 17 hours a week since last year. Mississippi’s archives have public hours six days a week and the South Carolina Archives is open five days. Alabama opens its archives four days a week and every second Saturday.
“This is not the way we want Georgia to be known,” said Marie Force, archivist for Delta Air Lines and president of the Society of Georgia Archivists.