Access Denied

In my previous post titled Who Am I?, I decided to delve into my family history.  In particular, I wanted to know more about my grandfather, who I never met but was instantly intrigued about the details of his short life.  After that initial post, very little happened in the way of new research especially with the holidays fast approaching.  But, at the beginning of the new year, I was more determined than ever to get back to it.  I started a family tree, I made some phone calls and I did a little digging.

I was extremely interested to know the circumstances around my grandfather’s imprisonment and his death.  Were the two events linked?  Why did he go to jail?  These were questions I want answered.  Going to my family for answers isn’t possible because the surviving relatives in my family were too young to remember.  After all, they were only children.  And, my grandmother died years ago well before the genealogy bug ever bit me.  Because of these unanswered questions, it became all the more apparent to get my hands on any records that could shed light on this family mystery.

Often times, as citizens, we never stop to think about all the records we produce in our lives.  Where do these records go?  Who keeps them? Even as an archivist, a “keeper of records,” I don’t often ponder this fact.  It wasn’t until this past week that I realized how important records are and, more importantly, how access to them is critical.

I hit the biggest roadblock imaginable as a genealogist and it was incredibly disheartening as an archivist.

It’s considered old news by most people as everyone has shifted their focus to the latest news story.  But several months ago, the Georgia State Archives, based in Morrow, Georgia, was threatened with a sever budget cut as well as staff layoffs by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.  This measure did everything but officially close the facility down.  With the budget cuts and staff layoffs, the remaining staff would be unable to remain open to the public and serve the countless researchers inquiring for information by phone or email.

At the time, I was outraged.  I was outraged on several levels.  First, as a Georgian, I was ashamed of my state.  In all my travels, no matter where I have lived, I always and still do consider Georgia to be my home.  To think my state and its officials would do such a thing was outlandish.  Secondly, as an archivist, my first thought was economic hard times be damned!  Those records belong to the citizens of the Georgia and they have the right to have access to them.  Records are what holds a government and its officials accountable.  Thirdly, as a historian, I thought of the richness of those documents in describing Georgia history from the colonial area to the present day.  There are likely millions upon millions of brilliant historical topics waiting to be uncovered and written about.

I immediately took to social media.  I encouraged friends to write their state officials, sign the petitions that were circulating around, to join the Facebook page Georgians against the Closing of the State Archives.  I signed petitions.  I beat the war drums.  And, for a time, it looked like things were looking up.  The Georgia State Archives might be saved.  Secretary of State Kemp even released a statement reassuring people that they would figure out a way to keep the Georgia State Archives open.

Like countless others, I bought into the idea.  Life marched on.  New new stories took the place of this one.  The holidays came and went.

It was only in starting up in my genealogy search, that fate would bring this story full circle.  As I called around trying to locate records for the Georgia state prisons, it dawned on me that the records must be at the Georgia State Archives.  Even as I searched their website and finding aids, I had completely forgotten about the possible closure or the fact that it was an ongoing issue.  I had a simple question about how the records were arranged.

A simple question that gave me a serious wake up call.

As the phone rang, a voice recording came on.  I thought to myself, “okay, so I’ll leave a message and they’ll get back to me.”  In that oh so sweet Southern accent I have grown to miss, that voicemail quickly reminded me that the Georgia State Archives was still in trouble.

Until this issue was resolved, the Archives and its staff would not be taking any questions from members of the general public.  My grandfather’s records…housed in that facility were denied to me unless I drive or fly to see them.

Access denied.

I felt disheartened.  Not angry.  Instead I was sad, incredibly sad.

This experience served as a reminder to me of the value of archives and records to tell history.  Not just my history but your history.  Your state’s history.  Because although this situation happened to me, it could easily happen to any of you looking to gain access to records.  With the economy being what it is and budgets shrinking, archives, along with libraries and other liberal arts/humanities institutions, are the silent victims.  In our day-to-day we don’t think about their importance until they’re threatened, almost on the verge of extinction.

I will do what I can by raising awareness, writing emails and letters, and maybe just maybe..I’ll have access to my grandfather’s record.

I hope you’ll do your part too.


About Ashley S

I'm an archivist!
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One Response to Access Denied

  1. nixonara says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Ashley. It vividly captures the impact of budget cutbacks and resulting curtailments and/or closures of archival institutions. I’m the first generation of my family to have been born in the United States. Records that would help me to do genealogical research would be abroad, in Europe—if they survived occupations of my parents’ homeland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. And that is a big if, because such totalitarian governments did not view “accountability” and “transparency” and “civic literacy” the way many people say they do here in the U.S. nowadays. (I write “say they do” on purpose, as even there, it gets complicated.) To say nothing of issues such as basic humanity.

    Access to records truly can be fragile. They’re vulnerable to destruction at the beginning of the life cycle (an issue which concerns me greatly and explains in part why I follow NARA issues so closely). If they survive the decision to retain and are not deleted or shredded (which can occur improperly and illegally), accessibility is affected by how archival institutions handle them. Budgets affect records and the people who work with them in so many ways. Getting to the root causes of why some programs are cut while others are not is very challenging. I rarely see honest conversations about that. Thank you again for eloquently putting a human face to some of the issues.

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