Kaye Minchew (center left), a member of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives, presents Gov. Nathan Deal (center right) with letters and petition signatures supporting the state archives, on Wednesday. Nearly 100 people showed up at Deal's office to protest a decision to close the archives to the public Nov. 1, because of budget cuts.
ATLANTA Nearly 100 supporters of the Georgia Archives got an unexpected surprise Wednesday morning at the state capitol, when Gov. Nathan Deal announced the Morrow-based archives would not close to the public as previously announced.
Deal made the announcement while he issued his annual Georgia Archives Month proclamation. During a photo opportunity with the archivists, they handed the governor a petition with more than 10,000 signatures in support of the archives, as well as thousands of letters and e-mails from people urging the state the keep the facility open to the public.
That prompted Deal to say the archives would not close to the public, but he did not elaborate on how that fate would be avoided.
“We’re still working on our budget proposals right now, but the archives will stay open,” said Deal, to the cheers of dozens of archivists and other archives supporters.
The announcement from Secretary of State Brian Kemp last week that the state archives would close to the public Nov. 1 — to meet a 3-percent budget reduction mandate from Deal — inspired outrage among archivists, academics, historians and genealogists across the state.
“There’s nobody who would like to have the archives open more than me, but we were directed to take a $733,000 budget cut and this was, unfortunately, the fallout from that,” Kemp told Clayton News Daily on Wednesday. “It’s not a decision I wanted to make, but I had to.”
Staff will be cut down to just the archives director, the assistant director and building manager. Georgia residents will be able to access records by appointment only, although Georgia law requires the archives be open at least one Saturday per month.
“It’s a public facility holding the records of government and now the public can’t get to it,” said Jim McSweeney, regional director of the National Archives at Atlanta, which is located next to the Georgia Archives.
The archives holds the state’s most important documents, including Georgia’s royal colonial charter, a copy of the Declaration of Independence given to state leaders in 1776 and a letter from 200 years later, when President Jimmy Carter announced his plans to seek the White House.
Supporters of the state archives organized plans to show their love for the facility. They had large stickers, which said “I support our Georgia Archives,” printed for the occasion. They also solicited the letters and e-mails given to Deal.
“It’s just embarrassing that it’s come to this,” said Jonesboro resident Phyllis Lawson.
The supporters arrived ready to protest the decision. As a small group of supporters lined up for a photograph with Deal, however, he surprised them by candidly announcing the archives would remain open after all. He then re-iterated the promise when he received the petition signatures and letters of support.
Kaye Minchew, executive director of the Troup County Archives, said she almost had to do a double-take to make sure she wasn’t merely hearing things when Deal first made the promise. Minchew is also a member of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives and she received the Georgia Archives Month proclamation from Deal.
“When he said it, I sort of looked around to make sure everybody else heard it,” said Minchew. “Then he said it twice so I was thrilled.”
Minchew said mounting public pressure over the last week, as well as a realization of what the archives does, probably played a role in convincing Deal to keep the archives open.
“I think he has an appreciation for history and the importance of archives,” she said. “I think having so many people turn out, so many people write and having press attention all combined to help. Now, we will have to figure out how to capitalize on this attention.”
Even as the full group of supporters lined up for a separate photo on the steps of the capitol’s south wing, many of them still didn’t realize they had already won. Even after they learned about Deal’s promise, some of them still expressed dismay that it was even considered.
“It’s paid for by the taxpayers so they should have access to it,” said Pamela Nye, the director of archives at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta.
Making a promise to keep the archives open is different from actually fulfilling that promise, however. Kemp said the funding issue still has to be addressed. He added the governor did not tell him about his pledge before it was made. Kemp’s office oversees the archives operations.
“If he funds it to keep it open, that’d be great,” said Kemp.
The secretary explained Deal would have to “tell me we weren’t going to have to come up with a $733,000 cut” in order to fulfill the promise to keep the archives’ doors open.
“I guess there’s the potential we could be open one day a week, but that doesn’t get us to the budget number that we were instructed to cut,” said Kemp.
Although Clayton State University, which is located next to the Georgia Archives, offers a master’s degree program in archival studies, Kemp said using student interns to keep the facility open is not a viable option. It would mean the secretary of state’s office would still have to pay security and janitorial staff to work. The security and janitorial staff will be let go as part of the budget cut.
Richard Pearce-Moses, the director of Clayton State’s archival studies program, said it will be difficult for three people to handle requests on their own. He added the archives will lose valuable institutional knowledge because of the staff cuts.
“The firing of seven people at the archives represents a combined memory loss of hundreds of years of knowledge about these records,” said Pearce-Moses. “It’s going to make it an awful lot more difficult to find documents. It will likely take years, maybe even decades, to replace all of the institutional knowledge that is being lost.”