Home Improvements

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

Most folks are aware that the Georgia Historical Society is home to the first and oldest collection of Georgia history in the nation. But few realize how far we’ve had to come in a short time to open that collection up to the world.

The Society’s 203-year-old collection traces its roots to 1809, when the Savannah Library Society began assembling an archive of manuscripts, books, and portraits. Forty years later, the SLS merged with GHS and its collection was added to that of ours.

Since then, the GHS collection has grown into the largest dedicated exclusively to Georgia history—over 4 million documents, books, maps and artifacts, enough to create a museum of Georgia history. It represents every part of the state and covers every period of time, from James Oglethorpe and Helen Dortch Longstreet to Leah Ward Sears and Vince Dooley. An original draft of the United States Constitution, the only collection of Robert E. Lee correspondence in the state, and the papers of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 18 Georgia governors, and the only two Georgians to serve as U.S. Attorney General—John Macpherson Berrien and Griffin Bell—are among its many treasures.

But what good is it if it’s not accessible? In 1997, the year of our voluntary state privatization, half of the collection was unprocessed and closed to researchers. And that which was open could only be found by rummaging onsite through an antiquated card catalog system.

So starting in 2006, GHS received the first of a series of federal grants to implement a major technology upgrade. So far it has taken six years and $1 million in federal and private matching funds, but we’ve made the leap into the 21st century.

First, we redesigned our website and developed an OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) to supplant the card catalog. This allowed the entire collection to be searchable online. We created new finding aids, enhanced online search capabilities, cataloged thousands of maps and artifacts, and digitized those artifacts and our portraits so that they and thousands of historical photographs are viewable from your laptop or the classroom. And a recent NHPRC grant with the Atlanta History Center will soon set in motion the final phase of the project: digitizing the actual documents so that all 4 million will be viewable online.

While we were upgrading our technology, we also eliminated the decades-old manuscript backlog. Not only are millions of documents now open for research, but new collections can be processed almost as soon as they are received, a key selling point when donors are considering GHS as a home for their personal history.

Online tools and an eliminated backlog have flung open the door to Georgia’s past. This year 30,000 researchers, three times more than a decade ago, will be served. Untold more are served through educational programs and publications based on research in our archives. Unlike university libraries and special collections, which were created to serve their school’s faculty and students first, the Georgia Historical Society was founded to serve the people of Georgia.

Your financial support has been, and continues to be, crucial to our success. So thank you for your generosity. Continued cuts in state funding and rising expenses have led to reduced reference hours, but the collection has never been more accessible. Because of you, Georgia’s first and oldest archive is still the home for history.

W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.