State governments throughout the nation are facing severe budget deficits and have been forced to make deep cuts to programs and services. In some states the worst is yet to come, and decisions impacting the lives of many citizens must be made in the immediate future. During this time of crisis, it is crucial that reductions in governmental spending do not disproportionately reduce the funding of archival programs.
Government records safeguard the rights and freedoms that all citizens enjoy and, as such, they are as vital to the health and well-being of state residents as programs that deliver social services. For example, a member of the public may not be able to register for unemployment, health, or other benefits without access to data in public records. Information in public records documents a citizen's right to vote. Legal action to protect an individual from abuses by another person, a corporation, or the government itself may require documentation that can be found only in the state archives. The commitment to maintaining the availability of such records is one of state government's most fundamental and vital responsibilities.
State records also help us to understand the history of our nation and they play a central role in the interpretation of the past. History teaches us that when a society allows its government to operate in secret and without accountability, basic freedoms are gradually eroded. The rights of every American are in danger of being diminished today and long into the future if state archival budgets are cut too deeply.
As the fiscal situation in states becomes increasingly desperate, it is tempting to target records management and archival programs because, when compared with public education and social services, preserving and maintaining access to government records may appear to be simply a cultural enrichment rather than an essential service.
However, this is not the case. State archives are at core to the operation of state governments. The effect of budget reductions on archival and records management programs is exacerbated because these program funds are dominated by personnel costs. Budget cuts have an immediate impact on the level of services being provided by the archives and makes records less accessible to the public. Records require constant attention and cannot simply be warehoused and unavailable until better times return. The resulting backlog of work may never be overcome. Some critical records may be inadvertently discarded and lost forever if staffing is reduced at the state archives. This will be especially true of contemporary records being created electronically instead of on paper. The loss of these electronic records will have both immediate and long-term consequences for our state governments and the people they serve.
It should also be noted that the centralized records management and archival programs of state governments are significantly more efficient than allowing every state agency to manage and store their records independently. Thus in the long-term cuts to state archival programs will likely cost a state overall more than they will save.
In summary, our democratic system is founded on the openness of our government at all levels to public scrutiny. State archival programs preserve and make available essential evidence documenting government actions. Without government records, elected officials cannot be held accountable. Without these records, citizens cannot exercise their rights. Failing to maintain this documentation breaks a public trust.
Disproportionate cuts in the budgets of state archival programs will undermine the functioning of our democracy. The Society of American Archivists encourages great caution in reducing the funding for state archival programs. State archives are a vital government service that should be supported even in times of financial hardship.
—Approved by Council, April 2003