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:
@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?
Brooke: Okay, 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.
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?
Brooke: Well, 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?
: We’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*
@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?
Brooke: We 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?
: Okay, 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!