Yet Again, the Georgia Archives Scheduled to Close to the Public

O. C. G. A. § 50-18-70

(a) The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government; that open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions. The General Assembly further finds and declares that there is a strong presumption that public records should be made available for public inspection without delay.

As many of you have probably heard by now, the Georgia Department of Archives and History is scheduled to close to the public on November 1, 2012 due to budget cuts. After that, appointments will be available to those needing access to the Archives’ holdings on a limited basis dependent entirely upon the number of staff available at the Archives to handle such appointments. Since the Archives now has just enough staff to maintain its primary function (processing and storing certain governmental records), it is clear that the number of appointments available after November 1 will be low.

O. C. G. A. § 50-18-71

(b) (1) (A) Agencies shall produce for inspection all records responsive to a request within a reasonable amount of time not to exceed three business days of receipt of a request; provided, however, that nothing in this chapter shall require agencies to produce records in response to a request if such records did not exist at the time of the request.

The Archives is now open to the public only two days per week, being closed four days of the normal business week so that it can be open on Saturdays for non-resident visitors or for those who work Monday through Friday. Even taking into consideration that the Archives’ normal business week runs from Tuesday through Saturday, it is closed to the public the first three of those days, which makes it difficult for the Archives to provide the nearly-immediate public access to public records as required by law. Of course, no one nit picks this because at least the Archives is open.

Imagine, if you will, the backlog to appointment-only access after November 1st. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that, without adequate staff, requests to access public records housed at the Archives could quickly overtake the staff’s ability to fulfill those requests, particularly within a “three business days” window; thus potentially (and likely) throwing the Archives into non-compliance with state law, and opening the state up to a possible law suit. Of course, I’m not an attorney. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so, given the clear language of the majority of the Open Records Act. I encourage each of you to access this act through LexisNexis, and read each word of it. You might be surprised what is and isn’t in there.1

But I digress. Why is this important in the first place? Contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t to keep independent researchers (like me) from ending up on the street.2 The primary issue here is, as it always has been, that the public has a right and a duty to access public records in order to provide a necessary oversight to governmental actions and activities. This is a right openly acknowledged by the General Assembly in the first paragraph of the Open Records Act, quoted at the beginning of this post. Without ready access to public records, the public (namely, the taxpayers of the state of Georgia) cannot provide such oversight, a necessary action in a “free, open and democratic society.”3

One person who sides with the Governor on this said, essentially, that because the government must make cuts, we shouldn’t complain just because these particular cuts affect us. While it is true that the state government must “trim the fat,” the fact that these service cuts affect us (meaning genealogists) is largely irrelevant to the bigger picture. The services provided by the Archives are necessary for the continued functioning of the government. Remember that the Archives’ first and primary duty is the preservation of state records, and that its other duties include providing records access to government agencies so that those agencies can, in turn, perform their respective duties.

Between taxpayer requests for access and agency requests for access, which ones do you think will be answered first after November 1? Yes, that’s what I thought, too. Oh, the irony. Regardless, both of these directives are necessary (and possibly mandatory under the law) to maintaining a fully-functioning government.

There are economic consequences outside of the state’s budget to consider, too. There always are. I sat down last night and laid out the potential loss of income, to my family alone, both from ongoing research projects dependent upon access to records and microfilm housed at the Archives, and from client-based research dependent upon the same. I was staggered by the numbers. From two book-length transcription projects alone, I could potentially lose around $7440 in the near future (say, between June and December of next year). Over the lifetime of those two projects (say, ten years or so), I could see nearly $21,000, but only if I can actually finish them. (Need the Archives for that.) A third book-length indexing project is based on original records housed at the Archives, and is worth potentially $10,500, more or less, over the life of the project (again, around ten years). It will cover about seventeen volumes. Did I mention these have not been microfilmed? Don’t see getting that done on an appointment-only basis.

I also have several small research guides I’m working on that I had hope to publish between December of this year and March of next year, with a potential short-term income of around $1800. Not to mention the impact on lecture and article development, and on certification projects, all of which have the potential to produce income, either directly or indirectly. Oh, yes, and the client research I take, which is based largely in Georgia. Potential losses? Between $2000 and $8000 annually.4

These projects individually may not seem like much, but add them up and you’ll see why I’m a bit worried. Of course, I have other non-Archives dependent projects going, but they are a small part of my work. Or were.

And then there’s all the money I spend to research at the Archives: lodging, at $50 or more per night; gas, at about $40 per tank; meals, at up to $8 per meal (a conservative estimate), depending upon whether I eat out or bring groceries; and the shopping I do at night in nearby retail establishments; all of which affects the local economy, either in direct money laid out or through tax revenue, part of which goes to the state.

Now, extrapolate those numbers by the number of people who use the Archives for personal or professional research, whether for genealogy and history, or for legal and land research, and so forth. When the Secretary of State said that the Archives returns over three times what is appropriated back to the general funds, he wasn’t kidding. My question to Governor Deal and the members of the General Assembly is this: Given the requirements of the Open Records Act and the financial boosts from the Archives, why are any cuts to its budget being considered? This is a question Governor Deal and the members of the General Assembly need to answer.

Here are three actions every Georgia citizen needs to do:

  1. Sign the Petition to Keep the Archives Open!
  2. Contact Governor Nathan Deal, legislators to the General Assembly here and here, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp (at bottom of page) to express your concerns over the Archives’ scheduled closure.
  3. Spread the word to all your friends and neighbors, to anyone who may need to access the holdings of the Archives, and to anyone concerned about open records access.

* * * * *

1. Or go here, read the disclaimer, and click on the “OK-Close” button. Scroll down to “Title 50. State Government” and click on the + button the left. Then click on the + button next to “Chapter 18. State Printing and Documents.” Finally, click on the + button to the left of “Article 4. Inspection of Public Records.” Have fun!

2. Although that’s certainly a relevant issue, particularly when you have a fifteen-year-old son to feed and clothe.

3. The United States is a Constitutional Republic, but the ideal of a so-called transparent government remains the same, since we are a free and open society, or mostly so.

4. Based on the number of projects I took when the Archives was open five days per week. I now seldom take client research projects requiring more than approximately two days of research time at the Archives (the amount of time per week it’s open now). The time I do spend there is either because the original, non-microfilmed records are there, because the Archives is closer than the county or counties where the research subject lived, or because I have a personal project (like the book-length transcription projects mentioned previously) going requiring access to those records. If in some fashion I can work around using the Archives, I usually do, simply because the stress of driving and being in the Atlanta area is often not worth the gain achieved from using its services. Of course, if the Archives were to reopen for a full five days per week, that would be different. It’s far easier to spend one week a month in Atlanta researching than it is to be down there two days a week nearly every week. Well, it’s easier for me, anyway.

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