The following article, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of UGA Libraries’ magazine Beyond the Pages, details a recently funded Access to Historical Records grant project to process and make available the records of the Georgia Democratic and Republican Parties. The records demonstrate the changing face of Georgia politics and present a microcosm of the shift from Democratic to Republican Party domination throughout the American south. Archivists at UGA also have taken steps to preserve the electronic records found in the Democratic Party of Georgia records as outlined in this Russell Library blog article from October.
The Party Is in the Papers: The Georgia Political Parties Records Project
In February of this year, the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies embarked upon the Georgia Political Parties Records Detailed Processing Project. Funded by a generous grant of up to $58,777 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), this one-year project will organize and describe the records of the Democratic Party of Georgia and the Georgia Republican Party. As the official repository of the parties, the Russell Library will provide researchers access, for the first time, to the records of two important institutions that have shaped Georgia’s political landscape.
For several months now,Russell Library project archivist Angelica Marini has immersed herself in these parties, tracing the parallel histories of the Democrats and Republicans through their records. The decades documented by these records(Republicans, 1970s-1990s; Democrats, 1960s-2000s) represent pivotal transition periods for both parties in the South. While the local Democratic base remained strong in the South throughout the 1960s, Republicans expanded their reach in the 1970s and started building political majorities in many Southern states.In Georgia, however, the Democrats retained control of the state legislature, constitutional positions, and local elected officials well into the 1990s.
“Processing the records of the two major political parties in the state has been an exciting project to work on at the Russell Library,”says Marini. “The records have revealed themselves to be mirrors of the parties themselves, showing major differences in party structures, strategies, and organizational processes.” What Marini is finding, based on her work with the parties’ voluminous files and her reading of an array of political tomes, however, is that these records demonstrate a desire on the part of both parties to engage more people in the political process.
The Democratic Party records illustrate a crucial, yet largely unexplored, chapter of their political history. Through correspondence, planning and strategy documents, and other material, researchers will see evidence of the party’s operations as they existed during an era of virtually unchallenged political control. The records are a twenty-year snapshot of a well-oiled political machine whose dominance was rarely in question.
The records of the Georgia GOP, on the other hand, show a party with a very clear direction. “When I started really getting into the records,”Marini says, “it became apparent that the GOP was focused on opening up the political system in Georgia. It was –as any political party should be — concerned with electing party members to office, but the major revelations come from the late 1980s and into the 1990s when the party really pushed to organize the state in grassroots campaigns.” The collection has numerous files illustrating county interactions with the GOP state headquarters, fundraising, political planning,and changing voter issues.
Because a collection often can appear chaotic in its unorganized state, the archivist works to learn more about the people, or in this case, the organization in question and survey the contents of all those boxes. “For me, the process always begins with researching the collection’s creator and studying any existing box inventories,”says Marini. “Documents like by-laws, organizational charts and correspondence have shown me how the parties functioned, the major players involved at all levels, and how to make sense of the records they created.”
The success of a project of this significance is in no small part due to the Russell Library’s ability to hire a professional archivist dedicated solely to the parties’ records. “External funding, whether from federal agencies, such as the NHPRC, foundations, or individuals is extremely important,”says Mat Darby, the Russell Library’s Head of Arrangement and Description. “This focus has allowed for a more in-depth understanding of these collections and will prove beneficial to future researchers.”
And when all is said and done, the records of the Democrats and Republicans will find an audience of researchers prepared to delve into these new resources. Ashton Ellett, a Ph.D. candidate in UGA’s Department of History, has been waiting patiently while the work to organize and describe the collection is completed.“I cannot begin to tell you how much these collections will help in the writing of my dissertation,” Ellett says.“My research explores the relationship between economic, demographic, and social change and the development of the Republican Party in Georgia since the Second World War. Suffice it to say that the materials contained in these two political collections will prove indispensable to researching and writing an accurate, insightful, and ultimately, successful dissertation.”
As the project draws to a close in January 2015,finding aids, or guides, to the Democratic Party of Georgia Records and the Georgia Republican Party Records will be available on line via the Russell Library web site. At that time, registered researchers can request material for research in the Russell Library Reading Room.
Angelica Marini, Project Archivist, and Mat Darby, Head of Arrangement and Description, Russell Library, University of Georgia