#genchat: Reclaim the Records

Graphic courtesy of SirLeprechaunRabbit, co-host of #genchat

On February 1, we had a very special guest at #genchat: Brooke Schreier Ganz, to discuss Reclaim the Records.  (In case you don’t know, Reclaim the Records’s mission is to “identify important genealogical records sets that ought to be in the public domain but which are being wrongly restricted by government archives, libraries, and agencies. We file Freedom of Information and Open Data requests to get that public data released back to the public.”)  The discussion was so informative, I felt I had to capture much of it for future reference; thus this blog post!  I will feature our questions, Brooke’s answers (with permission), and other useful information that was shared.

As during #genchat, the following abbreviations will be used:
FOI = Freedom of Information
records = government-generated/curated records
RTR = Reclaim the Records
ICEBREAKER:  What is “Freedom of Information”? Who does it apply to?
Freedom of Information generally provides that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information.
Q1.  How do you know which records you should legally have access to?
Brooke:  First of all, you need to know which law applies to your situation. Is it the famous FOIA, which covers only federal records? Or is one of the 51 state (and DC) FOI laws, which all vary a bit? If so, you’ll want to check out that law’s details.
These state-level laws all have different wacky names: FOIL, OPRA (no, not *that* Oprah), GRAMA, Sunshine Law, Public Records Act, Right-To-Know Act, and so on. They’re all pretty similar, but some are better at what they cover, or what they exempt.
The best websites to find out what the law you’re interested in is called, and what it covers, and what its quirks are, is the BALLOTPEDIA page on state Sunshine laws:
Another great website that has a round-up of these state laws is @NFOIC, the National Freedom of Information Coalition. They’re kind of aimed more towards journalists who need to use these laws, but their info is still very helpful.  
  • @mdiane_rogers: 1. Share facts / concerns/ Freedom of Information how-tos for your jurisdictions widely [Note: Diane is from British Columbia, Canada; so even though RTR only covers the United States, the principles here can apply just about anywhere!]
Q2.  What steps should you take to obtain records?
BrookeOkay, so you know you want to get a copy of certain record set under a state FOI law. Go you! So what now? Well, you need to read that state’s law thoroughly. See what it explicitly says is NOT covered.
For example, Maryland’s state FOI law, which they call the Public Information Act (PIA), explicitly says that all kinds of educational records are exempt. So you can’t use the MD PIA to get copies of your great-grandma’s high school records.
But on the other hand, Maryland is one of the rare states where the judiciary is covered in their state FOI law! (Most states exempt it entirely.) So you can use the PIA to get copies of court-related genealogy records, such as naturalizations, wills, and so on.
In short, go read the law. The whole thing.  
  • @mdiane_rogers: 2. Join together with other individuals / groups with similar historical interests (e. g. in BC, Canada, I’m a member of the BC Historical Federation’s Advocacy Committee )
Q3.  What things should you do if you get pushback?
Brooke:  Of course, if every government archive or agency followed the law, there would be little need for a group like Reclaim The Records in the first place. But, they don’t. And so here we are!
If you make a request for a certain records set, like a copy of a microfilm or a database, and you get pushback — or get ignored entirely — don’t panic. There are people and groups who can help you. First off, double check with a “helper organization”, if possible.
Some states have publicly-funded groups or ombudsmen or records councils, or things like that, who you can literally just call up on the phone and talk to. Or e-mail them, whatever. They give free advice! And they’re usually very nice. You can literally just call them up and be like “hey, I wanted X and the archives are saying no, are they breaking the law?” In NY, there’s the Committee on Open Government: dos.ny.gov/coog/ In PA, there’s the Office of Open Records: openrecords.pa.gov Other states, but not all, have publicly-funded helper groups like that too. They’re experts in their own state law. They can even do research for you in their previous caselaw. And they can write Advisory Opinions for you, should you need to file a lawsuit. Advisory Opinions are basically a letter from the state organization saying that they think your request was totally legit and fine, and citing cases X, Y, and Z. The opinion itself isn’t legally binding, but it’s great to have one in your pocket, should you sue. And these state organizations will be happy to help any government agencies with questions too, not just requestors. So you can always tell your archive or city clerk’s office “uh hey, before you keep saying no to me, how about you call this org and double check?” 
  • @seekingsurnames: I just requested military records through FOIA, a virtual stranger (expert in military research) helped me. #genchat #thepowerofsocialmedia
    @_genchat: That is great! Use your connections (remember, your #genchat friends are all over the world!)
  • @packrat74: #genchat Just like graduate school, know all the rules and be persistent.
    @Ghyxion: And polite
Q4.  When should you contact RTR?
BrookeWell, first off we should emphasize that we’re not lawyers! No one on our board has a law degree. So we can’t immediately assess whether a records request is truly valid or not. We need to call out the big guns, with the JD’s. We’re happy to take suggestions and talk on the phone or over e-mail. And if it sounds reasonable, we add it to our “to-do list” and eventually start work on it. But we’re also limited by time and budget. Non-profit life, you know. But we have so much we want to do!
Q5.  When should legal action happen?  What kind of attorneys deal with FOI requests?
BrookeWe’ve been fortunate to find awesome attorneys for all our cases, but that was honestly one of the hardest parts of our very first case, in 2015. We were so lucky to find @DaveRankinNYC after initially chasing down many false leads. He led a NY Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) case to get the Hart Island burial records released. That’s the New York City potter’s field, an island that has been use for burying the indigent for over a century. He got the books for his client, an artist! And when we stumbled across a newspaper mention of that case, we were like THAT’S THE GUY WE SHOULD HIRE. And we did.    
Fun fact, but totally a coincidence: his mom is a genealogist! We’ve also found some of our attorneys through diligent web searching for new stories about lawsuits for their particular state FOI law. For example, in New Jersey, we found the awesome @CJGriffinEsq at Pashman Stein who is THE top lawyer for their state law, OPRA. Another good place to find a lawyer for the state you’re interested in is the FOI-L listserve run out of Syracuse University by @nfoic. It’s a low traffic e-mail list with the top FOI (mostly FOIA, but not all) attorneys and journalists: https://www.nfoic.org/about/programs-services/foi-listserv
That’s how we solicited recommendations for a Missouri attorney to help us with our MO Sunshine Law requests for the state birth and death index. We got several names sent to us, some with personal stories attached, and we called up Bernie Rhodes at @lathropgage. And by the way, for those of you wanting to hear updates about Missouri, which is our longest-running FOI lawsuit (two years and counting!) there’s some news: we are JUST about to submit the paperwork to ask for summary judgment. *crosses fingers*
  • @cferra1227:   These types of lawyers seem to specialize in it: https://www.rocketlawyer.com/article/how-to-file-a-freedom-of-information-act-request-cb.rl as do http://www.foiadvocates.com/  Legal action should happen when all other avenues have been explored.
  • @packrat74:   If you’re doing #genealogy on the cheap, it helps to touch base with your local society — local to you, or to where your research is.
  • @JoAHenn:  or contact local Facebook genealogy group for that area, often someone will volunteer to go get it for you and/or find it and snap a pic to send you. Over 3000 Facebook genealogy groups, bound to be a relevant one.
Q6.  How can we help RTR’s efforts?
BrookeWe at Reclaim The Records are so thankful for all the support we’ve gotten in the community over the past few years! We became a registered 501(c)3 non-profit org in February 2017. And yes, we gratefully take donations. Our work is funded by donations from fed-up genealogists and historians and journalists — like all of you.
Every record set we win goes online for free public use: no paywalls, no subscriptions, no usage agreements, none of that stuff. It’s public data!
Q7.  How do we fight against existing & forthcoming restrictions?
BrookeOkay, first of all, let’s give a shout-out to another group of genealogists doing great work, who are keeping their ears to ground for news of potential restrictions in every state: RPAC, the Records Preservation and Access Committee. RPAC is a joint committee of @FGSgenealogy, @ngsgenealogy, and @IAJGSConf. They are a great early-warning system for news about potential records restrictions that may be coming down the pike in various localities. Learn more about RPAC here: https://fgs.org/community/rpac/
But once a vital records jurisdiction is starting to make noises about restricting records, what can genealogists do? Well, for one thing, we can write letters, we can petition, we can make calls, we can use the traditional persuasive methods to try to stop that. But if that doesn’t work, if the government agency totally ignores the public outcry — see, for example, what happened in NYC in October 2017 with their awful new rules — there is something else we can do. We can sue.
Now, this is not traditionally what genealogists do. We tend to be homebodies staying up too late with our records, or who are the most happy in quiet archives. We’re usually not rah-rah activist types. But we need to be, or else we risk losing more records access. And so one of the things RTR has been thinking about in the past years is not just “how do I get record set X using that FOI law” but also “how do we push back against the erosion of public records access?” And lawsuits are, frankly, an underused tool for that.
  • @packrat74: Know your elected representatives, for whatever level of jurisdiction that applies. If you hear about bad legislation, let them hear why you think it’s bad. You’re a constituent and they’re *supposed* to be representing you.
  • @milhistbuff3: Get/stay educated & active. Will second @halfacadian‘s suggestion re: existing/ pending legislation/regulations, for all levels of governance & making your opposition heard. e.g the NYC Dept of Health issue last fall.
  • @milhistbuff3: Genealogy may be our primary interest in these records, but would suggest expanding the scope to modern day business/personal uses as well. E.g need to trace for health history/prove citizenship, wider social history etc. That may be more likely to cause rethinking it.
  • @packrat74: In addition to following RTR, read The Legal Genealogist (Judy G. Russell’s blog) — look for the posts tagged ‘Records Access’ — to get news about what’s happening around the country.
For more information regarding Reclaim the Records, be sure to visit their website at reclaimtherecords.org.  And to see some of the records they’ve reclaimed, be sure to visit their section on the Internet Archive.  You may find an ancestor waiting for you there!

New York State Family History Conference, Part 2: All the Learning

In my last post, I covered my general experience at the New York State Family History Conference. This time I will be writing about highlights from the classes and talks I attended.

Plenary Session

Friday was opened by a “plenary session” (which I had to look up: it’s the big meeting that everyone goes to). Joshua Taylor, President of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, officially welcomed everyone to the conference. He gave out two awards: the “Empire State Service Award” to Jennifer Liber Raines and the “Professional Service Award” to Susan R. Miller, for all her hard work at the conference.

Joshua then announced a new project that NYG&B was spearheading: the New York Land Records Project. This project involves the indexing of New York state land records on FamilySearch, a huge undertaking considering New York’s historic population. Click here for more information if you want to get involved!

President Joshua Taylor addresses the crowd. Author’s collection.

We were then introduced to the session’s main speaker, David Nicholson, head of Living DNA. David introduced the team members who came with him: Katie Welka from Canada, and Diahan Southard, who cartwheeled her way up the aisle! David spoke of Living DNA’s hopes to make DNA analysis more intuitive and more interactive. Some of their future tools are still in development, but look pretty exciting and accurate! Keep your eyes on this company!

MyHeritage Lunch

Knowing how MyHeritage is usually on the cutting edge of technology developments in genealogy, I signed up for their Saturday luncheon talk, “Genealogical Records in the Path of Destruction & Neglect – Past, Present & Future” by Mike Mansfield. Mr. Mansfield basically reviewed the well-known devastating losses (i.e. the 1890 Census) over the course of history, as well as data losses due to changes in languages, culture and technology. He made the very valid conclusion that each of us should be sure to document our own records and family history and to share it with others.

The Classes

Unlocking Roman Catholic Records on Findmypast – Jen Baldwin

  • Free Irish Catholic records! Author’s collection.

    There are lots of new records coming online onto Findmypast. Jen is working hard with diocese all over the country to get records online.

  • Catholic records from Ireland are free with a free account.
  • If you’re a member of the NYG&B, Findmypast North American records are free!

A Tour of Upstate New York Genealogical Research Repositories: Some Gems – Jane E. Wilcox

  • This was a sampling of museums, libraries, historians, and special collections, most of which Jane had visited herself.
  • A good online repository: New York Heritage

Genealogy and Maps – Philip Sutton

  • Philip is from the New York Public Library. The Map Division is in Room 117 at the main library, but there is a LOT online!
  • Philip demonstrated NYPL’s Map Warper, which is a really cool tool!

Using Geo-Tech Tools to Answer New York Research Questions – Frederick Wertz

  • Frederick showed us some common and uncommon map tools: Google Earth Pro, Arcgis.com (a paid site), GNIS.
  • Be familiar with the historical area before you research the map.
  • Research trip tip: note repositories on your online map software.

Converting a Bunch of Information into a Credible Conclusion – Thomas W. Jones

  • Thomas’ main point was creating an “assemblage” of information, which you analyze and correlate to come to conclusion. (Especially good when facts aren’t specifically spelled out.)

Writ in Stone: Cemeteries and Genealogy – Judy G. Russell

DNA and the Genealogical Proof Standard – Blaine T. Bettinger

  • Blaine made the relationship between these two concepts so much easier than it sounds.
  • DNA provides direct evidence of a genetic relationship and indirect evidence of a genealogical relationship.
  • If DNA is not available for whatever reason, consider it a “burnt courthouse”.

New York Records and Resources at FamilySearch – Cherie Bush

Outstanding Long Island Research Repositories and Resources – Terry Koch-Bostic

  • Honestly, there were so many resources; I

    Terri Koch-Bostic. Author’s collection.

    took 4 pages of notes!

  • Terry said that the best resource to start with was the NYG&B Gazetteer.

Documentation: The What, Why, Where and How – Thomas W. Jones

  • Documentation is not just the product, but the process as well.
  • The essence of documentation is: the who, what, where in, where is, and when.

Uncharted Waters: Diving into the Holdings of the New York State Archives – Jane E. Wilcox

  • It’s important to know that that the New York State Archives & Library had a devastating fire in 1911, though some records and some partial records were saved.
  • The NYS Archives seems to be organized much like NARA: each record set has a series number.
  • Use the finding aids.

By the end of the conference, I was spent! But it was so worth it. The next NYSFHC will be September 10-12, 2020 in Albany. Will you be there?

New York State Family History Conference, Part 1: All the Feels

When I first heard that the New York State Family History Conference (NYSFHC) was going to be in Tarrytown, NY in 2018, I said to myself, “I’m going!” and I kept a sharp eye out for details to be released. After all, it is within driving distance from my house – all I would have to pay is the conference fee!

Finally, the conference arrived on September 13 – 15. I didn’t sign up for any pre-conference workshops or tours, but I was okay with that.

The Venue

NYSFHC, put on by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, was held at the Doubletree Hotel in Tarrytown, right along the Hudson River (and I did not take time to take in the views, but I’ve seen the river plenty of times). For those who attended NYSFHC and stayed in the hotel, I’m sure it was super-convenient. The hotel had its own restaurant, but it seemed to me (the one time I ate there) that it was not used to handling a conference crowd. There were no other restaurants located conveniently nearby; having food trucks would have been fantastic!

The space that the conference was held in was sufficient. Classrooms were (usually) not too crowded, though for the smaller rooms you had to get there early enough to ensure you had a seat. A couple of rooms were either too cold or too warm, but this Goldilocks was prepared by wearing a blazer! The main exhibit hall was a bit crowded at times, but there was always the option of checking out the exhibitors/vendors out in the hallway.

Old Friends/New Friends

You’ll read in other blogs that the unique part of a conference experience is interacting and networking with others in person. That is so true!

I was feeling a little shy when I first arrived, but then I reached the exhibit hall and saw Jen Baldwin at the FindmyPast booth right away. She recognized me immediately from when we met at the Global Family Reunion and greeted me with a hug! Once again, the FindmyPast booth was a great place for home base.

Jen Baldwin at the Findmypast booth. Author’s collection.

Another touchstone was the OldMaps booth, where fellow Virtual Genealogical Association member Sara Campbell was handing out VGA ribbons for our badges. Little did I know, I’d actually met Sara two years before at a New England geneabloggers meet-up! At NYSFHC, I was tasked with taking a VGA group picture (which turned out to be two), and Sara helped redirect members outside of the exhibit hall for the pictures.

Meeting some of the other VGA members (Susan Schuler, Kim Cotton, Gail Gannotti, Carol Poulos, Karen Ramon, Ellen Healy, Jo Henn, Eva Kujawa from Sweden, and Marian B. Wood, who I’d heard speak a few months before) was awesome! Contrary to the conference being New York-based, these folks were from all over the world! And here we were, virtual members meeting together in person.

Virtual Genealogical Association meet-ups. Author’s collection.

But of course, I was most excited to meet up with my peeps from #genchat – complete with the #genchat selfie sign, created by Jenna Mills! There were a few people I knew would be there, based on Twitter feedback (like Jen & some VGA folks), and others that I was pleasantly surprised to see, like Molly Charboneau (who I met at the 2014 Genealogy Event) and Michael Cassara (aka @digiroots). Ironically Friday night was also a #genchat night, so meeting at the conference was a nice reminder to everyone that #genchat was still around!

Jen Baldwin, and me with Jen! Author’s collection.

Jo Henn. Author’s collection.

Molly Charboneau and Michael Cassara. Author’s collection.

Susan Schuler and Kim Cotton. Author’s collection.

Diahan Southard and Marian Wood. Author’s collection.

A Word About Badges & Ribbons

Now, I know that at conferences, you get ribbons to put at the bottom of your badge, but I didn’t know much about how you got them or why. I did have #genchat ribbons to give out to the #genchat folks, and I knew I was entitled to a VGA ribbon. I picked up a few that I knew I qualified for. (One guy I spoke to thought that I was a professional since I had “so many ribbons.”) What I didn’t know was I could actually get a lot more!

I found out from Jen via Twitter that “Ribbons are essentially free marketing… of course we all want our logos carried around by attendees and on social media. So in most cases, it’s a free for all. Each attendee can choose to be a part or not.” I guess if you’re in doubt whether or not you can have a ribbon, just ask!

Ribbon-decked badge! Author’s collection.

In my next post, I’ll be highlighting the talks I attended and what I learned.

A Second Look

Last week I began to draft a blog post about the mortgage deeds of Frank L. Colomy and how that shed some light on his life and his family. As with most of my posts, I decided to look over the source documents again more closely.

Boy, did that open a can of worms!

What I was originally going to post has been put aside as I realized that I really need to take a much closer and more detailed look at these deeds. Additionally, what I’ve found seems to indicate that I need to do more research, including some in-person visits to Lynn, Massachusetts, which I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to do.

So the story will have to wait, but I can promise, it looks like a great one! For now the genealogical adage to go back and look at your documents again continues to hold true!

Rosener, Ann, photographer. Washington, D.C. OWI Office of War Information research workers. District of Columbia United States Washington D.C. Washington D.C, 1943. May. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017851716/. (Accessed April 15, 2018.)

#genchat Treasures: African American Genealogy

One of the cool things about #genchat is being able to discuss the genealogy of different ethnic origins. You may not have that ethnicity yourself, but you may learn of new resources and methodologies that you can apply to your own research. Personally, I like to approach it thinking, “if I were ethnicity, where would I look?”

This past February 2, we discussed African-American genealogy led by Renate Yarborough Sanders. Before I list all the wonderful resources that were shared, I just want to say that this was one of the most moving #genchats we’ve ever had. Not only did we learn of the unique experiences and challenges of African-American ancestors, but we explored the difficult topic of having a slave-owning ancestor. All this was done in a spirit of honesty and empathy on all sides. I’m a little choked up as I write: if only the rest of our divided society could come together like this, there would be so much healing.

Courtesy Library of Congress.

So the following resources mentioned during and after #genchat are listed here, not only to aid African-Americans with their research, but also to educate everyone about the research challenges and what you may be able to do if you have a slave-holding ancestor.


Midwestern African American Genealogy Institute

Black Pro Gen

Hidden Cemeteries of Essex County

Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches list of African-American Genealogy blogs

Kentucky Historical Society – US Colored Troop Muster for KY 7th-9th districts

Kentucky Historical Society – letters mentioning slave names

Mississippi Dept of Archives & History – Sovereignty Commission Online

Library of Congress – African American History Month site


African Roots Podcast

Ben Franklin’s World (podcast) – episode 118 – The business of slavery in Rhode Island

New York Post – College Compiles Index of Slaves and Their Owners

Roots Revealed – Genealogy Mishap Case

Southern Poverty Law Center – quiz – How Much Do You Know About American Slavery?

Life in the Past Lane – In the Shadow of Charlottesville

The Atlantic – The Freedman’s Story

Into the Light – Restore My Name

Family Tree Magazine – How to Trace African-American History Through Oral History

Slave-Holding Ancestors:

Reclaiming Kin – Suggestions for White Descendants of Slaveholders

Slave Name Roll Project

As always, if I’ve missed any resources that were mentioned or if you have something new to add, please reply in the comments!

Oral History: The Missing Link

Recently I was at a party where I was talking to a friend who was born in a foreign country. We were talking about family, and she was telling me that her father had two birth certificates: one saying he was born in that country, and the other saying he was born in a US territory.

Why did her father have two birth certificates? My friend explained: her father was actually born in the US territory and had that birth certificate. Once he married and started a family in the new country, the family wanted to move into an apartment in a much better neighborhood. However, to get into this new neighborhood, you needed to be “in” with the right people. And the right people only wanted to deal with those born in that country. So the father knew a guy who was able to get him what looked to be a valid birth certificate that stated he was born in that country. He got the birth certificate, which got him the apartment.

Now, imagine that you are a descendant of this man a hundred years from now. You are researching him and find two different birth certificates, but which one is correct? Say you do ascertain that the US territory certificate is correct; the question remains why there is another certificate? Maybe you ask yourself if this is even the same guy.

My point is that this is something that can really only be fleshed out with a family story, whether that be oral history or something written down. Lately, I’ve been learning a lot from my uncle and my mom about my maternal side of the family. They’ve been telling me stories about what their grandmother’s house was like, what certain cousins were like, how they were raised and certain events. These stories will never be in newspapers, DNA or vital records; they only come from the people that lived them.

I think of my favorite brick wall, George W. Colomy. The tiny clues I have of his life (his divorce, his name change) only tell me a sliver of his whole story. If I knew more, I would surely know where he came from and where he ended up before and after his marriage to Lucy Goodwin. But his story died with the people that were in it. (Don’t worry, cousins; I have NOT given up on him!)

What stories are in your family that need to be preserved? What seems to be mundane now that may interest future generations? Think about them, write them down, pass them on. But first: talk to your family and discover those stories!

#genchat: The Next Generation

As you probably know, I’ve been involved in the popular genealogy Twitter chat, #genchat, since its beginning in 2013. Which means that as of this month, #genchat turns five years old!

Courtesy genealogygenchat.com

Late last year, #genchat’s host Jen Baldwin asked Kale Liam Hobbs (aka “Sir Leprechaun Rabbit“) and I if we might consider taking over hosting. Jen was looking to focus more on her own genealogy, writing and family at this time, but didn’t want to see #genchat fall to the wayside, since it had benefited so many. After our initial shock 🙂 we decided that yes, we would take this on.

Since Liam is in Canada and I’m in Connecticut, we’ve started this long-distance coordination of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it via emails and messages. We’re still in the process of figuring it all out, but it is starting to come together. (So please be patient!)

You can still view the schedule on genealogygenchat.com (we’re working on getting the calendar working again). As you can see, we have lots of guest hosts with some exciting topics to cover, and 2018 looks to be shaping up to be the Year of the Archive.

Please join us again on January 19 when Christine Woodcock will be talking to us about “Planning Your Ancestral Tour”. #genchat starts at 10pm Eastern, 9pm Central, 8pm Mountain, 7pm Pacific, and as usual, Treeverne (our virtual bar) opens a half hour beforehand for some casual conversation. Always remember to use the hashtag (#genchat) in each tweet so that we can be sure to see you*, and for each question (Q1, Q2, etc.), answer with A1, A2, etc. to make the conversation easier to follow.

*For some reason, not all tweets are showing up on the tchat.io platform, so you may want to try TweetChat, TweetDeck or another Twitter chat platform.