At the time I am writing this, it seems likely that legislation will be introduced in the special legislative session to completely change the Arkansas History Commission. While the legislation, which is proposed by Gov. Hutchinson, contains some provisions which might benefit the preservation of our heritage, the overall effect will be to essentially turn the future of our history over to a single state bureaucrat.
I am surprised that Gov. Hutchinson has been so unwilling to work with the history community in Arkansas to develop policies relating to the preservation and sharing of our heritage. In the past, Gov. Hutchinson has demonstrated an interest in his historical legacy, if not that of the state as a whole. Several years ago, when I was head of special collections at the University of Arkansas, I had the honor and pleasure of working with him in successfully acquiring his papers from his previous tenure as a U.S. attorney and as a U.S. congressman.
Arkansas was the last Southern state to establish a state history program. The state legislature created the Arkansas History Commission in 1905, but it appropriated no funding to implement the new law. Describing the History Commission as elitist, Gov. Jeff Davis vetoed the new legislation, but the General Assembly overrode the veto. The History Commission lay dormant until 1911 when it finally received a small appropriation.
For decades the History Commission struggled to survive on tiny budgets and a staff of two or three employees. Indeed, Arkansas spent more licensing and regulating barbers than on its history agency. Perhaps one should not be surprised to learn that the first director of the History Commission committed suicide and the second suffered a mental breakdown.
Despite the lack of support, the History Commission has done a remarkable job of collecting sources documenting our heritage as a people. In addition to preserving the state's official archives, the History Commission has sought out a vast range of materials including church records, military documents, business records, works of art, and the papers of hundreds of individuals. The Commission's more than 4,000 manuscript collections comprise the largest body of primary source materials in the state. The historic map collection numbers more than 3,000 maps. Historic photographs number well over 500,000.
The Arkansas History Commission is open six days each week, serving thousands of researchers in its facility in the Multi-Agency Complex on the Capitol grounds. That is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to serving patrons onsite, a vast amount of information is made available through the Commission's robust Internet website. The History Commission's large collections of museum objects are shared through exhibits--especially with school children.
The governor is proposing these changes as part of a larger Efficiency Bill. This title implies that the History Commission is a drain on the state budget. But the fact is that the total appropriation for the 2015-16 fiscal year is $1,968,000. Most of that tight budget is given over to salaries, though $322,000 is paid for rent in a state-owned building.
The History Commission has an authorized staff of 25 people--exactly one-half the number of employees in the Mississippi history archives. Salaries are tiny. Not a single History Commission employee was included in the list of highest paid state employees as published recently in this newspaper. The entire budget of the History Commission is less than one-half the salary paid to the head football coach at the University of Arkansas.
The proposed bill would authorize the director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage to relocate the History Commission. There is absolutely nothing wrong with moving the Commission, but it should not be made by a single state bureaucrat. The Commission's holdings must be stored in environmentally-controlled conditions, and it must have parking space to accommodate the thousands of people who use the state archives yearly.
Rumor has it that original plans called for moving the History Commission to the old Balch auto dealership on Cantrell Road at the foot of Chester Street. If that rumor is based on fact, then it vividly demonstrates the potential debacle generated by this proposed legislation.
Arkansas has a fascinating heritage--a fact that has motivated me to write this weekly column for almost 15 years. Radically changing how our historical legacy is preserved and made available to our citizens is not something to be taken lightly. The portion of the Efficiency Bill dealing with the Arkansas History Commission should be withdrawn. That would then give us an opportunity to begin a transparent and inclusionary process for deciding how we will preserve our collective heritage.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Hot Spring County. Email: Arktopia.email@example.com.
Editorial on 05/22/2016