‘Sweet Tea and Southern Breezes’: Our archives and heritage

By Jamil Zainaldin

Glass slide, "Gate of Ishtar." Credit: Johnson Library, Southern Polytechnic State University

Glass slide, “Gate of Ishtar.” Credit: Johnson Library, Southern Polytechnic State University

October is Georgia Archives Month, an occasion for commemorating the importance of preserving and documenting Georgia’s as well as the nation’s history. The 2014 theme of Georgia Archives Month, “Sweet Tea and Southern Breezes,” sponsored by the Society of Georgia Archivists, evokes “the memories of friendship and community documented in archival collections across the state.”

Reflecting on why archives — especially the Georgia Archives— are of such importance, I am reminded of a comment made by veteran journalist Maria Saporta. She talked about her experience while viewing Morehouse College’s King Collection on the ground floor of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, where examples of Martin Luther King Jr.’s correspondence are on public view.

The King Collection at the Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta. Credit: Center for Civil & Human Rights

The King Collection at the Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta. Credit: Center for Civil & Human Rights

Saporta explained that seeing “words scratched out and replaced with new words” allows us to “actually witness the thought process of the greatest mind of the 20th century.” She asked, “How will we be able to treasure and record the 21st century?”

In its expansion and penetration, the global digital revolution so familiar to everyone is unlike any other “takeover” in history. All conquering, its rise was a peaceful one that moved out quietly from laboratories (and garages), universities, government agencies, and industry into the public square and marketplace. Its ubiquitous cousin today is the handheld device, an accoutrement that now qualifies (as we dash out the door in the morning) as an article of clothing.

An archivist processing photographs of the Roscoe Conkling Simmons family collection. Credit: Auburn Avenue Research Library

An archivist processing photographs of the Roscoe Conkling Simmons family collection. Credit: Auburn Avenue Research Library

That this communications transformation was predicted, and even envisioned by some far-seeing scientists and sci-fi writers does not make its arrival any less astounding. Astronaut Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey methodically disconnects the circuits of the rogue computer, Hal. “Dave, what are you doing,” asks Hal. “I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid.”

That imaginary sci-fi film of 1968 was not far from the truth in its projection of today’s electronic machine-human interface. We practically live on the Net, and use computers of all sizes to store, compose, revise, and save our work in digital files, some of which are no longer recoverable (to the frustration of courts and Congressional committees).

An archived slave trader's letter. Credit: Georgia Historical Society

An archived slave trader’s letter. Credit: Georgia Historical Society

Most of our city, county, state, and national archive holdings are paper files. Archival records, like those of the University of Georgia, Georgia State University, and the Georgia Historical Society are collections traceable to individuals, events, and institutions in history. Our State of Georgia Archives, the public’s official taxpayer-supported “memory” (if you will), has the mission of preserving and cataloging the “people’s records.”

In recent years the Georgia Archives has navigated some very rough waters. Once overseen by the Secretary of State’s office, a few years ago most of its staff was let go in budget cuts, and the hours of operation were sharply curtailed. There was a period when the archives’ very survival seemed in question.

Folks playing music in St. Marys, Georgia, ca. 1900. Credit: Vanishing Georgia Collection

Folks playing music in St. Marys, Georgia, ca. 1900. Credit: Vanishing Georgia Collection

In a series of steps, with the state’s archival community, genealogists, scholars, and the general public actively engaged, Georgia’s elective and higher education leaders cooperated to resolve the crisis, moving the governance of the archives from the Secretary of State’s office to the University System of Georgia — a sensible home for sure.

If brain scientists are correct, our digital habits may be altering our neural circuitry. “Living in the moment” is taking on new meaning with the constant presence of our ubiquitous “technology-interrupter,” tugging at us (and stimulating different parts of our brain) every minute with tweets and messages and new mail. Even more, we depend on our instantaneous access to a multitudinous World Wide Web to tell us just about everything we need to know and do (and how to get there to do it).

Hal, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hal, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Is the State of Georgia Archives crisis a signal to us — is it our modern-day canary in the mine? The motto of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is “Past Is Prologue.” The custodian of vital documents “created in the course of business” by the federal government, the National Archives has in its care the originals of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, parchment and ink preserved in glass cases. We can see them, trace their creases with our eye, and gawk at the inkblots and the rows of signatures. Though old, they are anything but dead letters. Though static, they transport us through the ether of time.

More important now than ever are the archival collections everywhere in Georgia — those hard-copy letters and documents of the extraordinary and the ordinary. Without them, one day “we the people” may have no memory at all. How can we ensure that the steps taken in our journeys are preserved to instruct, to warn, and to guide future travelers?

I hope you will have a chance to take in some of the events of Georgia Archives Month. Check out their Facebook page for information.

Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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