by Juliana Smith
As family historians, the closure of public records is an issue that is near and dear to our hearts. As governments struggle with the balance of allowing public access to records and privacy and security concerns, an often knee-jerk reaction is to simply seal off access. Youâ€™ve probably seen news stories about the pending legislation in many states that threatens access to the records of our ancestors, particularly recent ones. While it is impossible to address the specific issues facing each state and the intricacies of the proposed legislation and possible implications in the space of this article, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss some ways we can be proactive in promoting our position on these issues.
First, Don’t Panic
Since records access is so important to our research, even the hint of restrictions can cause waves of rumors to begin flying through cyberspace that evil legislators are planning a vital records bonfire and wienie roast. Before we begin sharpening our pitchforks and lighting our torches, itâ€™s important to do a little investigating first. Our knee-jerk reaction can be just as damaging as the politiciansâ€™ if we go off without the facts.
The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and National Genealogical Societies (NGS) joint Records Preservation and Access Committee was established to advise the genealogical community on these types of issues and their website (http://www.fgs.org/rpa/) contains some valuable information on who to contact and what to do if you hear that legislation is pending in your state or area of interest. This website is undergoing some changes and once revised, will allow state representatives to post up to the minute information regarding the status of legislation regarding their state. If you hear of legislation that may restrict access to records, itâ€™s a good idea to send that information to this committee. They have experience in dealing with these types of issues and can guide us through the proper steps to take.
There are many ways you can learn about pending legislation that may affect your state, or that of one of your ancestors. Since many of these issues are being discussed by mainstream media, you can search news sites. Try a Google News search (http://news.google.com/) for your state using keywords like access, vital records, public records, legislation, etc.
If you have heard through the grapevine that there is legislation pending, check it out on government websites. To find state government sites, either search for them or use the format: www.state.[insert two-letter state abbreviation].us (e.g., www.state.in.us will take you to the Indiana state site). Even if this is not the correct address for the site, it will typically redirect you to the correct page.
There, look for the stateâ€™s legislature. If you have the number of the pending legislation, most of these sites will allow you to search by that number. If youâ€™re unsure, there are typically keyword searches that can also help.
Local genealogical societies also keep abreast of these issues, so they are another resource for information. Check their websites and contact them if necessary to see if they have more information for you.
If It’s True
If you find that there is serious legislation that you oppose and have confirmed the information, what can you do? First, you can join a genealogical society for that area. Even if you live out of state from where your ancestorâ€™s records are being threatened, you can fortify efforts of the genealogical societies that are fighting to preserve our access by increasing their numbers. When a society that can demonstrate that it speaks for a large number of members, (members who could represent votes), their input carries more weight in these negotiations.
If you decide to contact your legislator, be polite and let them know youâ€™ve done your homework. Ask them what their position is on the issue. State your position and tell them that this is a concern that will impact your vote (an important factor in this election year!). If there are public meetings in your area with representatives, bring up the question and ask them to explain the legislation and their reasons for supporting or opposing it.
Since this is an election year, you can also cast your opinion with your vote. How your government representative voted on these and other issues is a matter of public record and can often be found online too. If you canâ€™t locate the information online, the legislative sites do contain contact information and you can call or write their office to request that information.
In the End
We have a choice on how we respond to these issues. We can sit back, cross our fingers and blindly hope that it all turns out all right, or we can educate ourselves on the issues and express our opinions to those who have been elected to represent us. The latter is a much more effective measure to take.
Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than seven years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.