Record Access in a Post-9/11 World
It was Tuesday, the 11th of September 2001. I was in Davenport, Iowa preparing for the Federation of Genealogical Societies 2001 Conference. Suddenly, on that beautiful, promising sunny day our lives changed as a nation and as a genealogical community.
Little did we know at the time the transforming effect that single event would have on our access to genealogical records. The events of 9/11 coupled with the increased threat of identity theft ensured that elected officials wanted to be perceived as protecting citizens from these attacks. Genealogical databases quickly became a favorite target.
I am a member of an organization called the Records Preservation and Access Committee. Never has there been a more important time for RPAC than today.
Mission of RPAC
The Record Preservation and Access Committee is an organization with the mission:
To advise the genealogical community on ensuring proper access to historical records of genealogical value in whatever media they are recorded, on means to affect legislation, and on supporting strong records preservation policies and practices.
To do this, RPAC must gather accurate information on each issue. Only then does RPAC post communications and recommendations. Pulling the trigger too early can do more harm than good.
In the decade following 9/11, we have witnessed wins and losses in our access to records. Here are a few.
Arizona has placed birth and death records online with a 50 year closure for death records and 75 for births.
Pennsylvania birth records, which used to be closed to the public, will be available after 105 years. Death records were closed from 1906 onward, but will now be available after 50 years.
Virginia death, marriage, divorce, and annulment records are now available after 25 years and birth records are available after 105 years.
Michigan State Archives has preserved a genealogical book collection of materials representing states other than Michigan. They were at risk of being dispersed to a number of libraries throughout Michigan and neighboring states.
The Social Security Death Master File is currently being threatened. Access to the file may be limited to a small set of industries. To follow this issue, visit the RPAC website at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/.
Military Honorable Discharge Certificates access at county courthouses is being closed through a state-by-state effort of the VFW.
National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) funding is at risk through the efforts of Utah Representative Jason Chafetz. The NHPRC mission is to preserve records of the United States, yet Chafetz would eliminate grants to do so by state and local institutions.
What Can I Do?
We often ask, “What can I do?”
You can assist the Records Preservation and Access Committee, by staying informed, connecting with other genealogists, and learning before taking action.
The committee has a need for state liaisons in every state. Currently, there are twenty-two states without liaisons. See a list at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/. If your state doesn’t have a liaison, make a nomination.
If we work together, we can make a difference.
This article was written by David E. Rencher AG, CG, FUGA, FIGRS