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After uproar, Ga. officials back off archives plan

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NORMAN GOMLAK | October 18, 2012 06:20 PM EST | AP

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MORROW, Ga. — When Georgia officials announced plans to severely restrict public access to its state archives, it set off a firestorm not only among scholars and people tracing their family roots, but national historical groups.

Archives supporters expressed outrage at plans to limit access to appointments-only on six days a month to view some of the state's most valuable papers, from the fading parchment of the 1798 Georgia state constitution to Jimmy Carter's 1976 statement of candidacy. They collected more than 17,000 signatures on an online petition, rallied at the State Capitol and hired a lobbyist.

On Thursday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp backed off of the plan – sort of. Deal announced that he was restoring $125,000 of a $733,000 budget cut so that the archives could remain open two days a week and visitors could view records without making an appointment.

"Georgia's Archives are a showcase of our state's rich history and a source of great pride," Deal said in a statement, which did not address the fate of seven workers who recently received pink slips effective Nov. 1. Three other employees – new archives director Chris Davidson, an archivist and a building manager – will definitely stay.

The controversy focused national attention on shrinking funding for state archives at a time when they're processing, preserving and digitizing far more records than just a few years ago.

Georgia's cost-cutting move was "a continuation of a trend we see at the federal level," said Lee White of the National Coalition for History in Washington. "It's not something we want to see spread to the states."

While most states have had to slash their budgets in recent years, making layoffs almost routine, the proposal to slash the Georgia Archives' budget struck a nerve in the Peach State, which celebrates a rich history from the Civil War to the civil rights movement.

Deal, a Republican, had ordered agencies to their cut spending during the current budget year by 3 percent. Kemp imposed the entire cut for his department on the state archives. His spokesman acknowledged that it was a "brutal cut" but necessary given past funding reductions for the secretary of state's office, which is also responsible for elections, professional licensing, business regulation and the State Capitol.

The agency is already struggling to keep pace with more stringent ID requirements for professional licenses, part of a new law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration in Georgia.

But archives supporters pushed back.

"We've complained for years" about budget cuts that whittled down the archives staff from more than 50 to 10 and reduced public access from five days a week," said Kaye Lanning Minchew of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives. "It takes a near disaster to get more attention."

Activists were soon joined by groups such as the National Coalition for History and the Council of State Archivists.

Vicki Walch, the council's executive director, said the number of workers at state archives has declined 20 percent since 2004 as the volume of processed paper records has increased from 2.4 million to 3.4 million linear square feet over the same period.

She said many archivists were surprised that Georgia had been hit so hard because the archives, located south of Atlanta in a 10-year-old complex next to a National Archives satellite facility, was regarded as a premier program. It has a relationship with Clayton State University, which offers a degree in archival studies.

"To have this happen has just sent a shock wave throughout the community because if it can happen in Georgia, what's going to happen someplace else?" Walch said earlier this week.

Archivists complained that no serious research could be conducted during two-hour periods. The archives contains 260 million documents, 1.5 million land grants and plats, and 100,000 photographs.

Archives backers also lamented that people wouldn't be able to easily leaf through important documents such as the 1798 Georgia state constitution – kept in a green bound volume in a secure, climate-controlled room – or Georgia's Royal Charter.

"I think any archivist will tell you that an archive should be open at least five days a week, if not one weekend day, because our mission is to serve the broadest possible constituency we can, said Sarah Quigley, manuscript archivist at Emory University.

In Thursday's announcement, Deal said he would propose that the archives be placed under the University System of Georgia, effective July 1. The state Legislature must approve the change.

Jared Thomas, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kemp, said his boss supported the changes and would be determining the effect on the laid-off employees, including those in charge of preservation, conservation and reference.

"We don't know yet," he said. "We're still working through the issue. The current level of public access will be maintained.

If the staff cuts remain, Walch is concerned that three staff members won't be able to handle the workload of processing new documents. On a recent weekday, stacked boxes of donated papers from the architectural firm Robert and Company sat near a door awaiting processing.

"The real shortsighted part of this is without that processing, you'll have access to things processed years ago but the things coming in now that just get shelved won't be open to anybody," she said.

Minchew said she was "delighted" by the governor's decision to restore some funds and not require appointments, but agreed that staffing is a concern. "Now we want to hear more details."

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Associated Press writer Ray Henry contributed to this report from Atlanta.