A continuing legacy of Arkansas history

Supporters of Arkansas history have been very interested in legislation introduced in the special session that just ended. Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam sponsored a bill designed to create efficiencies across state government, and the bill passed in the House and Senate last Friday. As a result, the Arkansas History Commission took on a new moniker, the Arkansas State Archives, and was transferred into the Department of Arkansas Heritage (DAH).

One thing we have learned from the past few days is that the people of Arkansas care deeply about their history and its preservation. The Arkansas History Commission previously operated under the administrative umbrella of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism (ADPT), which is responsible for operating and managing our state’s parks system as well as promoting Arkansas as a tourist destination. ADPT’s goals are more geared to economic development, and tourism is itself a top industry in Arkansas. The Arkansas History Commission was created to be the official archives of the state, responsible for collecting and preserving our state’s historical documents and public records, a mission that is much closer to the mission of DAH, which is to preserve, protect and promote the natural and cultural history and heritage of Arkansas. The Arkansas State Archives will work together with the seven other agencies of DAH that are repositories for Arkansas history, and include everything from museum collections about territorial Arkansas, Arkansas’s first state Capitol, African-American history or Delta history and music, to overseeing the National Register of Historic Places as well as our state’s system of natural areas.

Many people seem concerned that the DAH director (a Governor-appointed position) will have too much power over the director of the Arkansas State Archives, who is also the Arkansas State Historian. That position will enter DAH on the same footing as the directors of each of DAH’s agencies. They are all supervised by the DAH director. In turn, each of them supervises the staff of each museum and agency. Rather than answering to a commission of seven Governor-appointed individuals, the State Archives director will report to one person. The commission members will continue to be appointed by the Governor and will continue to advise and guide the State Historian on matters relating to collecting and preserving our state’s history. Nothing in the legislation changes the fact that the State Historian is still required to hold a PhD in History and demonstrate professional credentials in managing archives.

Some believe that the legislation, which gives the DAH director the responsibility of calling meetings of the Arkansas History Commission, places too much power with one person, and the fear has been stated that meetings may not be called. That is simply not the case. The History Commission meets quarterly, in March, June, September and December. Those meetings will continue on a quarterly basis. The people appointed to that group were appointed because of their expertise in history and the importance of archiving our historical documents. Their advice will be needed and very much valued as we move forward into the new structure.

Change can be disconcerting, but this move should not be a cause of worry. The Arkansas State Archives will continue to pursue its goals of preserving and collecting material bearing on the history of Arkansas from the earliest times; organizing and maintaining the state and local history of Arkansas by collecting manuscript materials, census records, military records, family histories, and various county, state and federal records; and encouraging historical work and research by the public. But now, they will be working and collaborating with seven other state agencies in the Department of Arkansas Heritage with common goals and within an organization with similar objectives.

An encouraging thing about the past week has been that Arkansans have made it known that they are passionate about their past and how that past is cared for. If that level of commitment continues and stays focused on what is best for our state, Arkansas can be a leader in making the care of its history and historical materials a priority.