A big records access win
Sometimes, in the genealogical community, it seems like we lose every battle of importance when it comes to records access.
We lost the fight to keep the Social Security Death Index fully open — and now can’t access any records within three years of an individual’s death.1
We just lost the fight to keep marriage records open in Kansas. The Kansas Supreme Court adopted new rules, effective tomorrow, that greatly restrict access to marriage records and redact information of enormous value to genealogists, such as the mother’s maiden name.2
But that’s really more a matter of perception than reality. The reality is that we win more than we lose, and thanks to a group called Reclaim The Records — a new not-for-profit group of genealogists, historians, researchers, and open government advocates — we just won another big one.
In January 2015, Reclaim the Records made a formal request under the New York Freedom of Information Law for access to the 1908-1929 index to marriage licenses and affidavits for the City of New York, held by the New York City Municipal Archives. It describes these records as a “lesser-known but very important record set. This set was kept by the NYC City Clerk’s Office, and it is the 1908-1929 application, affidavit, and license for a marriage, a totally separate three-page document that is generally dated a few weeks before the actual marriage took place.”3
And, the group explains, this record set is really useful for several reasons:
• The document contains the witnesses’ addresses; the regular marriage certificate does not. This is useful information, as witnesses to a marriage may have been family members.
• The document usually lists a more specific town of birth for both the bride and the groom; the regular marriage certificate often just lists the country of birth. Being able to narrow down a place of birth to more than just “Italy” or “Russia” is, of course, incredibly helpful.
• The document lists both the bride and groom’s father’s and mother’s country of birth; the regular marriage certificate does not.
• The document lists the names of any former spouses of the bride or groom, living or dead; the regular marriage certificate does not.
• The document lists, if the bride or groom is divorced, when and where divorce or divorces were granted; the regular marriage certificate does not.
• The document lists the bride’s occupation; the regular marriage certificate does not. Sometimes the actual employer name and address is given for both parties in the marriage, too; again, the marriage certificate does not.
• And perhaps most importantly, this document usually has three different sets of handwriting in it! This certainly helps researchers who have had to deal with records that were semi-illegible or perhaps had “creative” spellings of names and places.4
Now the simple fact is, these records are obviously and clearly public records. Anybody can get a copy of any one of these records by going to the New York City Municipal Archives. But the index to the records isn’t available anywhere, to help point people to the records themselves. So Reclaim the Records made the request for the index, 48 rolls of microfilm.
Initially, the Archives said yes. Then it said no. Without explaining why it changed its mind. The New York State Committee on Open Government weighed in, on the side of the genealogical community: these are, it said, open records. The Archives still said no.
So Reclaim the Records went to court.
And, it announced today, it won.
To put it more bluntly, the Municipal Archives threw in the towel and settled.
You can read all about it in Reclaim the Records’ very first newsletter, online here.
And you can read there about Reclaim the Records’ plans for more efforts to open public records to public access in the future. And take a gander at its To-Do List from around the country. It’s weighted towards New York, New Jersey and Illinois right now — but welcomes input from everyone everywhere: “we’d like to add information from all fifty states, and eventually other countries too.”
And you can read there and on the Reclaim the Records website about how you can help.
Not with money.
But with a little bit of your time, and with your public support of public records.
Follow Reclaim the Records on Twitter (it’s @ReclaimTheRecs). Like its page on Facebook.
And speak up. Among other things, take the records survey and report “historically or genealogically important public records that have limited public access, or no public access.”
Speak up in favor of public access to public records.
Speak up whenever public records are threatened.
Reclaim the Records won a big one, but it can’t fight this fight alone.
Public access to public records is a fight we all need to support.
- Corrected: See Judy G. Russell, “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 30 Sep 2015). ↩
- See Kansas Supreme Court Order 2015 SC 82 and Kansas Supreme Court Order 2015 SC 83, effective 1 October 2015. ↩
- “Frequently Asked Questions: Which records are you requesting?,” Reclaim the Records (http://www.reclaimtherecords.org/ : accessed 30 Sep 2015). ↩
- Ibid., “Why is this 1908-1929 ‘Application, Affidavit, and License’ record group so useful to genealogists and researchers?” ↩