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Do genealogists care about records access?

Okay, I’m (finally) home from my combination NGS and research trip, and it’s time and past time to get something off my chest. I have a question for each and every single genealogist out there who reads this blog or ever comes in contact with it.

Do you care — really care — about records access? About whether or not you’re going to be able to get your hands on that vital (birth, marriage or death) record, or see that document in the closed stacks at the state library or archives, or get that SS-5 application form without the parents’ names redacted, or even get that SS-5 application form at all?

I’d be willing to bet most of my 17-cents life savings that you answered “yes” to that question. And, if you did, let me ask one more:

What, exactly, are you doing about it?

I came pretty much face to face with that question at the National Genealogical Society 2012 Conference in Cincinnati. One of the sessions was a meeting of the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC). That’s a joint committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. It was scheduled at a bit of an odd hour — 3 p.m., when most afternoon sessions started at 2:30 or 4 p.m.

And because of the odd hour and a conflict in my schedule, I got there late. The room at that point had a few scattered attendees — perhaps as many as 20 or 25 total (though I suspect it was fewer than that). The meeting seemed to be winding down, several of us had a chance to make a few comments, then everything wrapped up and I left, discouraged with the poor attendance.

At the time, I made excuses in my own head. I’d been late, maybe it had been better attended earlier. Maybe people didn’t realize the meeting was open to the public, maybe they didn’t want to come in late, maybe maybe maybe.

It wasn’t until much later, when I read a blog post by Barbara Mathews, CG, attending on behalf of the Massachusetts Genealogical Council, that I really understood just how poorly that session was attended. She titled her post How to Get Discouraged: Only Four States Represented at the RPAC Session at NGS, and she wrote:

You would think that (the) active threat to open access would have generated lots of interest and that the room would have been packed. If that is your assumption, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Of the fifty states, only twenty-six have appointed liaisons to RPAC. Of those twenty-six liaisons, three were in the audience and one was remotely logged-in using webinar technology. Four out of twenty-six means that 15% of the liaisons attended in one way or another. Four out of fifty means that only 8% of the states supported the effort. Arizona’s Linda McCleary was logged-in. Nora Galvin attended from Connecticut but is not yet an official liaison. And, while I was delighted to visit and exchange business cards with Alvie Davidson, CG, from Florida and Billie Fogarty from Oklahoma, this is hardly a large enough team to win an access fight.

As the kids would say — O M G. The single biggest, the single most important issue for all genealogists everywhere — and we can’t even field a full working team? And of the team we can field, we can’t even put half of them into one room at one time? Hell’s bells, we couldn’t even put a quarter of them in one room at one time!

Something is very wrong here. And I suspect, as Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us.

It’s really easy to sit back and say, “it’s someone else’s job.” When there’s something out there with a big fancy name like the Records Preservation and Access Committee, well, it’s their job, right?

Wrong. It’s our job. Yours, mine, ours.

First of all, RPAC can’t help at all with issues it doesn’t know about. That’s why having liaisons in every state is so important. Take a look at the list at the RPAC website here. Is your state covered? If not, what are you waiting for? You’ve got what it takes, right? An interest in keeping records access open? Check. Ability to read the newspapers and stay current on legislation in your state? Check. Willingness to work with the genealogical societies in your state and get help from RPAC when you need it? Check. C’mon, folks. You can do this. Contact your state genealogical society and volunteer. At least contact your state genealogical society and — as a group — get somebody to volunteer.

Second, when it comes to the proposals in Congress to shut off access to the Social Security Death Index, each and every one of us ought to be on the front lines. Face it. Nobody from RPAC is going to get the ear of my Congressman here in the 7th District of New Jersey better than I can. And nobody from RPAC can get the ear of your Congressman in your district in your state better than you can. Why? Because nobody from RPAC can look that member of Congress in the eye the way we can and say, simply and flatly, “Look, pal, I’m a genealogist and I vote. In your district.” We can all pick up the phone. We can all write letters. We can all let our own representatives know — we’re genealogists and we vote.

The same thing is true when the issues involve access to state or local records. The people who won the fight to open key vital records in Pennsylvania last year were Pennsylvanians — people who could sit across from their local assemblyman or senator and say, “Charlie, I grew up with you in Pittsburgh (or Philadelphia or Harrisburg or Carlisle). I need you to listen to me on this.” And the people who won the fight to open equally key records in Virginia this year were Virginians. Sure, RPAC can and does help, but these access battles aren’t won by generals or tacticians back at headquarters. What’s needed are boots on the ground, bodies in the trenches. Your boots and mine. Our bodies standing together.

Not sure what to say? RPAC has all kinds of materials to help guide you. Start by reading “Access to Public Records: One Person Can Make a Difference” by David Rencher. Want specific help with the SSDI issue? Read the “SSDI Call to Action Kit” (but skip the part about the petition, which has expired). Want to stay informed on access issues? Add the RPAC blog to your lists of things to read (the link to the RSS feed is in the lower left menu). And get to know your state RPAC liaison… you can offer to help with an alert system for your fellow genealogists when an issue comes up in your state.

What else can you do? Scan your local newspapers. Is somebody on your town council talking about cutting your library’s hours or doing away with the genealogy librarian? Alert your genealogy society and speak out! Is somebody in your state talking about axing the budget for your state archives or closing off access to vital records? Alert your genealogy society (and RPAC!) and speak out! Make sure you know who your representatives are — federal, state and local — and make sure they know who you are. Make sure they know — we’re genealogists and we vote.

We can’t afford to sit back and wait for somebody else to fight these battles for us. The dangers of political apathy for the entire genealogical community are very very real. Look what just happened up in Canada: the entire Canadian Council of Archives was shut down and Library and Archives Canada is losing 20% of its budget. Think that can’t happen here? You know how many days a week the Georgia Archives are open to the public now? Two. Friday and Saturday. Because it’s easy to cut the budget for an archives. The Kentucky Department of Library and Archives where I researched last week has lost 30% of its budget and 45 staff positions since 2008. The reading room at the National Archives branch in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, closed last fall. It’s not just that it might happen here; it is happening here, every day.

We can’t let this continue. As a community, and as individual genealogists, we can’t afford to sit back and do nothing. We — you and me — all of us — need to get up, up off our duffs and into this fight.

So… what, exactly, are you going to do about records access?

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