MORROW, Ga. — The Georgia Archives, which holds both historical curiosities and virtually every important state government document ever created, is about to become nearly impossible to visit.
In November, a round of government budget cuts will reduce the staff to three, one of them the maintenance man. Thousands of documents that pour in every month are likely to languish because no one will be available to sort through them, archives officials said. People who view accurate and open government records as the bedrock of democracy are outraged.
The move will make Georgia the only state without an archives open to the public on a regular basis. But this closing is simply the most severe symptom of a greater crisis facing permanent government collections in nearly every state, professional archivists say.
An amalgam of recession-driven budget cuts and fast-moving technological changes could result in a black hole of government information whose impact might not be understood for decades.
“When our humor gets black, we talk about this as a period of time that could be the Dark Ages for public records,” said Vicki Walch, the executive director of the Council of State Archivists. “Fifteen years on either side of the year 2000 is very dicey.”
Every state has an archive, which is mandated to hold the official records of government and, by default, the history of the state. Laws governing which records must be saved and for how long vary from state to state. But all archives offer a trove of information. One can track who met with a governor, trace the history of every state law, find out whether a particular person held a professional license and pore over tax records.
Genealogy is big business for archives, too. As part of a television series, the restaurateur and cookbook author Paula Deen searched for her family history at the Georgia building here and discovered an ancestor who once owned slaves.
The records are often used to settle legal disputes. When two Georgia counties were in a fight over the sales tax revenue from a lucrative Bass Pro shop that straddled their boundaries, they turned to the state archives to settle things.
“The archives are like an insurance policy,” said Richard Pearce-Moses, director of the archival studies program at Clayton State University, which is near the Georgia Archives Building south of Atlanta. “There is a good chance we might never need to know where the county line is, but when we do, we really, really need to know.”
Increasingly, government records are being produced electronically, and agencies use a variety of software to collect and store them. But technology is changing so quickly that few protocols exist on how to gather and protect digital records from tampering. That applies to those once produced on paper as well as new forms of communication, like government Web sites and Facebook pages.
As a result, governments have to decide at what point an electronic birth certificate, for example, will be considered an acceptable legal document.
“A lot of this is untested in court,” said Sarah Koonts, the director of archives and records in North Carolina. “What kind of metadata do we need to have around an electronic record to prove it’s authentic?”
As with paper, preservation is an issue, too. No one knows how today’s technology may hold up and which methods of collection may go the way of the floppy disk, leaving a pile of pixels no one can read in 50 years.
State archivists are scrambling to learn how best to handle digital records just as they are absorbing the largest budget cuts in recent memory.
City and county governments are shrinking, too, so local officials are either not collecting as much information or simply sending what they do collect straight to the state repositories.
The volume of paper records held by state archives jumped to more than 3.9 million linear feet in 2012 from about 2.5 million linear feet in 2006, according to a survey by the Council of State Archivists.
“It would be one thing if the archives could say we are going to quit collecting paper and just collect electrons,” Mr. Pearce-Moses said. “But we are getting more digital content on top of more paper.”
In South Carolina, where the oldest document in the archives was created in 1671, W. Eric Emerson, the director of archives and history, is trying to hold on. At its peak in the 1980s, his department employed 125 people. Now there are 28. He has had to give up on conservation completely.
“Budgets are being cut and staffs are shrinking at the exact time when we need to be adapting and spending on digital infrastructure,” he said. “If you are in a state that thinks government should be smaller, it’s just far more challenging.”
His fear, like that of other archivists, is that “20 or 30 years from now, this will be a period in which numerous government records were lost.” [You do realize what happens when records are "lost" -- the people who are left after the chaos can, conveniently, make up whatever they want to fill the void. And who is to gainsay them?]      
It’s more than just adding server space and storing files shipped in from other agencies.
“That’s like taking 200,000 documents, throwing them in a Dumpster and telling a researcher: What you need is in there. Go get it,” he said.
There are some bright spots. Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia has said he will push to restore some financing for the state archives in the coming budget cycle, and new federal grant money is available to train archivists in electronic records.
In August, the Obama administration issued a directive aimed at overhauling the way federal agencies manage and preserve records. Many state archivists hope those protocols will inform their work.
Meanwhile, debates over what to keep and what to throw away continue.  “Is the Twitter feed of Gov. Jan Brewer in Arizona a public record? Yes. No question,” Mr. Pearce-Moses said. “Whether or not it has to be kept and where to keep it is another question,” he added. “What it really boils down to right now is triage.”