Here is an interesting opinion piece by historian James C. Cobb of the University of Georgia about the budget-driven decision last week to close the Georgia State Archives to the public.
The closing has upset researchers, genealogists and history buffs statewide, and a petition drive is under way to reverse the decision.
Former president of the Southern Historical Association and an oft-quoted expert on the American South, Cobb has written several books, including The Selling of The South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936-1990, and The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. His most recent book, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity, was published in 2005.
By James C. Cobb
Two years ago at this time, the Friends of Georgia Archives and History held their annual meeting under the pall cast on the proceedings by a recent announcement that the rich collections and resources of the Georgia State Archives would henceforth be available to individual researchers only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Honored by the invitation to speak to this beleaguered band of believers in the vital importance of not only preserving the past but keeping it accessible to the public, I mused that what then seemed a truly Draconian cutback in research hours was yet another sign that we, as a state and a society, appeared to be succumbing to something akin to nostalgia for the Dark Ages. I meant this as an attempt at dark humor, but even then it hit too close to the mark to be very amusing, and since then the distinction between nostalgia and reality has all but evaporated. The archives’ research hours were slashed even further to Fridays and Saturdays only last year, and with this week’s announcement by Secretary of State Brian Kemp that, as of Nov. 1, the facility will be “closed to the public,” the handwriting on the wall has effectively become a death sentence.
To make the punishment even more cruel and unusual, in October, the state’s most vital historical repository will mark its final days on Death Row during what Gov. Nathan Deal is set to proclaim as “Georgia Archives Month.”
The hypocrisy of this absurd charade becomes even more blatant in light of the fact that we, as Georgians and southerners, have long and steadfastly declared our profound respect for the power and importance of the past. It is surely worth noting that none of our less affluent southern neighbors, who are facing the same economic woes plaguing us, has even come close to shutting down its state archives.
Mississippi’s is still open to researchers six days a week, South Carolina’s five, and Alabama’s four, in addition to one Saturday a month. The archives of the respective states have functioned heretofore as a cooperative resource network through which, regardless of where they live or what drives their curiosity, researchers can examine historical evidence of all sorts. Contrary to the impression we are sometimes given, these research facilities do not function solely or, I dare say, even primarily, for the benefit of professors and graduate students. They offer vital records and documents to a broad variety of individuals seeking information about legal actions, property transfers, boundary disputes, and other matters of genuine practical value.
More importantly still, perhaps, the archives of every state provide vital personal clues as to who were are and whence our “people” came, not to mention the history of the communities that we now call “home.” By closing our archives, we are effectively reneging on our commitment to cooperate with other states in maintaining a historically informed citizenry, here and elsewhere.
As befits cultures in which history has traditionally been passed on to younger generations through oral narrative, an old African proverb holds that “every time an old man dies, a library burns,” the implication being that if a people fail to collect and pass on vital information about their past, it will eventually be lost to them. Rather than become historically ignorant in stages and over time, our elected officials in Atlanta have opted, either actively or tacitly, to hasten our descent into self-induced historical amnesia, regardless of the consequences for contemporary generations and, worse still, for those yet to come.
The best hope for forestalling this tragedy lies in contacting Gov. Deal and let him know how strongly you feel about this shortsighted and embarrassing decision to put a padlock on our state’s past.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog