On the doorstep to being closed less than a year ago, the Georgia Archives celebrated a milestone this month when for the first time it began operations under the University System of Georgia.
But while the management change has brought some immediate relief — including a three-position hiring spree after several years of layoffs and plans to extend hours beginning Wednesday — the depository for the state’s official government records now faces a broader challenge:
Just how can it reinvent itself to be more relevant with fewer dollars?
Todd Groce, president of the unaffiliated Georgia Historical Society, said the archives will lose if it is seen only as a place where “little old ladies” do genealogy searches and nothing else.
“You need to find a way of having value and making them see how valuable what you do is to the state,” Groce said. “It is good they have found a home. Now the challenge is going to be creating access, getting the funding back up where it needs to be [and] rebranding.”
The state archives was created to collect, maintain and provide access to the government records of Georgia, from the Royal Charter of 1732 establishing the new colony to modern-day electronic emails from one state agency to another. It plays a key role in preserving the rights of citizens to access that information, but it also acts as a resource to the government itself.
The state has used a 1787 agreement kept at the archives to settle a Savannah River boundary dispute with South Carolina. Cobb County has used archived Georgia Department of Transportation maps to establish property rights of way for utilities.
While those roles won’t change, people across the nation are now watching what happens next. The Georgia Archives, because of budget cuts, had been the first in the nation to offer the fewest public hours in the nation. Now it becomes the first archives ever to be managed by a state university system.
“The people in our field are very aware of what happened in Georgia,” said Jim Corridan, the state archivist in Indiana and national president of the Council of State Archivists. “We couldn’t begin to fathom why those decisions were being made, [but] we’re happy things are resolving in a positive light.”
Those decisions had a very basic foundation: money.
Faced with a budget cut of more than $730,000 and short of options, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp decided in September to close the Archives to regular public hours and lay off seven of an already strained 15-member Archives staff.
The ensuing outcry from Kemp’s announcement was like a slap awakening a startled community.
More than 17,000 people signed a national petition to oppose the move. Archivists from across the nation rallied and sent letters and emails to Kemp and Gov. Nathan Deal. Local support groups pooled resources and protested at the state Capitol.
In the end, a compromise brokered by Deal allowed the archives, which is based in Morrow, to remain open two days a week. Five staff members — not seven — still lost their jobs as of Nov. 1.
The state Legislature earlier this year passed a bill confirming a management switch to the University System. Lawmakers also agreed to boost the archives’ shrunken budget by $300,000, bringing it to more than $4.6 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. That infusion is what is allowing the archives to hire three people and expand its hours to four days a week.
In contrast, the state spent $6.7 million on the archives in 2008, when it supported a 42-member staff.
Now, archives Director Chris Davidson said, “we’re in a better position than we were a year ago, [but] I think there is definitely a lasting damage. We have to convince people that we’re a stable institution.”
“We’ve been laying people off several years in a row and [most recently] eight months ago,” Davidson said. “How do you convince people that no, that’s in the past, we’re stable, don’t worry about it? And you can’t make any guarantee. We can’t guarantee anybody’s job.”
But things are definitely on the upswing.
Of the three positions now open for hire, two will add to the archives’ bread and butter work of “reference” — helping researchers and others who comb through the institution’s holdings of old property records, photographs and birth notices for that eureka moment of finding a long-lost relative or nugget from the state’s rich past.
The third hire, for the position of conservationist, is key toward rebuilding the archives’ future. The archives’ conservation lab has been vacant since the last occupant was laid off last year; refilling the job allows the archives to resume full-time conservation treatment on its collections. It will also allow more opportunities for public exhibits and collaborations.
University System officials believe the archives has some of the best records in the country, particularly local kinds with respect to things as obscure as tax digests. It also boasts a prolific photographic collection, accessible online via its “Vanishing Georgia” project, with images that span over 100 years of Georgia history.
Davidson and University System Executive Vice Chancellor Steve Wrigley, who is helping oversee the management transition, envision getting local middle and high schools involved in classroom exercises using the archives’ material, building tours and research.
The system already has expertise in archival studies and digital media. Both Davidson and Wrigley see a natural relationship developing between the archives and university faculty who lead similar programs of study, with benefits to both.
The archives’ holdings could also be a boon to undergraduate and graduate students studying history, anthropology and culture because no public university has the breadth of collections the state archives does.
The challenge is in nurturing those new relationships into lasting ties that boost both the archives’ mission as well as its coffers.
“I think part of it is being more proactive about outreach individually to key people — opinion-makers, decision-makers — to make them aware of what they do,” Wrigley said.
“Another part of it is being more aggressive and open about partnerships and developing relationships with some of our institutions, with public schools, using social media and the Web for better access,” Wrigley said. “All those modern things that everybody’s having to do, I think [the archives] need to embrace those kinds of techniques to make sure people are aware about them.”
It will be work defined by the recent past. The Friends of Georgia Archives and History, an advocacy group expected to play a key role in new discussions about how to increase private philanthropy, will be honored in August by the Council of State Archivists for its work to keep the archives open and funded.
And then there are the regulars — not little old ladies so much as everyday Georgians seeking to know more about their past.
One of them is Keith Stone of Tifton, who on a recent Friday at the archives continued to scour documents about old land deeds and military lists to flesh out his Georgia ties before the 1820s. He’d been working for a year and a half on a family history book and said the state couldn’t place a value on what the archives had helped him accomplish.
“There’s just certain things you can’t find online or in local books,” Stone said. “I’m not one of those people who believes in big government spending. But to be able to learn about your own history is priceless.”
The Georgia Archives is expanding its public hours from two to four days a week, no appointments necessary. Beginning Wednesday, it will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Wednesday through Saturday.
To celebrate, the Georgia Genealogical Society this Wednesday will offer door prizes and refreshments between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
The archives is located at 5800 Jonesboro Road in Morrow. Visit online at www.georgiaarchives.org.