Preserving Access to Records: What Can You Do?

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. You’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, it’s important to do a little investigating first. Our knee-jerk reaction can be just as damaging as the politicians’ 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, it’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.

Investigate
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 state’s legislature. If you have the number of the pending legislation, most of these sites will allow you to search by that number. If you’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 ancestor’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 you’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 can’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.

14 thoughts on “Preserving Access to Records: What Can You Do?

  1. Great article, Juliana! The Records Preservation and Access Committee is, indeed, an avenue to pursue. Panic never solves any issue like this, and individuals have much less influence without the support of others. The RP&A can provide that strength of numbers.

    Thanks for a great article!

    George

  2. Good points! I know that the New Jersey Genealogical Society has done excellent work in meeting with legislators and keeping us all informed on what is happening. I imagine societies in other states are acting in a similar manner.

  3. In this context, it miight be useful if general-population genealogists like yourself were to pick up the struggle to force the German government to release the holocaust records currently being sequestered to “protect privacy.” Jewish genealogists have been involved in a long struggle for release of those records, which are vital to the process of confirming the heredity of thousands of families worldwide.

  4. I have found detailed info on my family; the names and b-days, etc, with parents names, of my children who are between the ages of 45 and 55 and living in Texas. If this is available on Ancestry.com. I can understand why the laws are being tightened to protect invasion of their financial records that often are tied to their B-day and mother’s name! Shouldn’t Ancestry exercise some restraint when publishing info on living persons?

  5. If your state is considering legislation to restrict access to vital records write polite letters to your local representatives and to the bills sponsors. In New Jersey the New Jersey Genealogical Society provided a form letter that could be individualized by each writer. I received replies from both my local representative and the bills sponsor. The bill in New Jersey is being reworked to address our concerns.

    Curt Miller

  6. Every call, email or letter to state and Federal representatives just plain asking their position on records access for family history research is a spotlight on the subject.

    The US Surgeon General supports family health histories for collateral lines that would not be readily accessible under many records closing measures.

    Public policy needs to balance all interests with critical thought.

    Every study on ID theft and fraud points to failings in the financial industries and credit card theft, without the use of vital records.

    The Massachusetts Genealogical Council (MGC) Annual Meeting and Seminar will include a panel discussion on Records Access issues and legislation across the nation.
    http://ancestralmanor.com/?tabid=118

    Sharon Sergeant
    MGC Program Director

  7. It has been suggested to me that “anyone inquiring about the legislation ask about the metrics. How many cases of identity theft occurred within the past year perpetrated by individual using a certificate to defraud? How many of these cases is this legislation likely to prevent?

    There is very little solid information that relates a certificate to fraud/theft. There are lots of cases where someone has used a different identity and then used a credit card, but that’s a completely different issue, as very few of those if any are done using a birth certificate.”

  8. There is more to this than identify theft. Access to records comes with responsibility and many people are fast and loose about publishing information on the Internet without living individuals permission. The Rootsweb databases and Ancestry.com family tree are prime examples of the inaccurate guck and information on living people that keeps getting downloaded over and over and the errors just keep continuing. The name collectors are posting databases with no thought to accuracy or have any considertion for an individuals privacy.

    Most of the knee jerk reactions to limiting access to records is just that, people don’t even read the bills. Most only limit to recent times, ie: 50 years or so, and require the requestor to prove a legitimate reason to request the record. Why should everyone be able to get a copy of a living persons birth, marriage certificate.

    Someone published alot and I mean alot of personal information about me and other living members of my family on a Rootsweb database, by the time I got Rootsweb to take it off four other people had downloaded the information and posted it again. Some of the information posted included private adoption records that are sealed.

    My birth and marriage records are online, how responsible is that? I support limiting access to recent records.

  9. Is there a listing of states currently considering this type of legislation?

  10. Thank you for your byline.People travel,kinfolk don’t live close by anymore.This is progress,but being able to find an ancestor’s headstone can bring us back home. my family is separated by mountains,rivers,lakes and an ocean.It does my heart good to find even a tiny bit of info. This is what makes me whom I am today. Do hope all legislators will keep this in mind. Am sure some have already found their ancestry and others don’t care. Only hope they will keep the national archives going. We pay taxes and personally I would work for free to keep the doors open for many others to find their Ancestry. Writing you is progress. Not everyone is evil and has an agenda. Again Thank You for your storyline.

  11. A tangential problem: The same date as my receipt
    of your article, I received a notice that the
    Internat. Red Cross-supervised Tracing service
    (Arolsen Germany) is denying access to researchers
    of their Holocaust-era Archives to survivors and
    their relatives! (itsrace@its-arolsen.org & at
    itspress@its-arolsen.org). What possible justification could there be for The Red Cross to
    take that position?

  12. Juliana,
    Preserving Access to Records: What Can You Do?
    I would very much like to use your this article in our Societies next newsletter if at all possible. Proper credit will be given in our newsletter.

    Thank you for allowing us the privilege of using this in our newsletter

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