HomeArticlesReclaim the Records: Getting Access to Genealogy Records with Brooke Schreier Ganz
Reclaim the Records: Getting Access to Genealogy Records with Brooke Schreier Ganz
August 17, 2019
– Hi, everyone. I’m Amy Johnson Crow. As genealogists, we work
with a lot of records, but sometimes we come up
against some record custodians that aren’t exactly being
open with their records. Well, I’m talking today
with Brooke Schreier Ganz who is the president and
founder of Reclaim the Records, an organization that is
doing some great work to get these records that
are supposed to be available to the public, actually out to the public. Brooke, thanks for being here. – Thank you for having me.
– What got you started? And tell us a little bit
about Reclaim the Records and what got you started in this project. – Well, sure, you know, I’m
not a professional genealogist. I’m just a serious hobbyist,
like a lot of people are. I don’t take clients,
but I’ve been researching my own family since 1998, so a long time. I discovered it in college
because it was a great way to procrastinate on
studying for my finals. – Nice! That’s the first time
I’ve ever heard somebody using genealogy as a way to not study. That’s great. – But specifically, the
way I discovered it was, I discovered websites that had databases, and so I sort of came into genealogy with the, of course untrue, assumption that stuff is online,
or is about to go online and ought to be online, and
that was the default setting, and when I discovered that
of course many records were not online at all, that
sort of influenced my thinking. I grew up in New York. My
whole family is from New York. All eight of my great-grandparents
lived in New York City. Five were born there, three
immigrated through Ellis Island. Basically all the records I want in the US are New York related, either in New York City or New York State. They’re two separate vital
records jurisdictions. New York City is treated
like its own state, kind of, when it comes to how they manage their records release
policies, things like that. It’s a little weird. But then, I met a guy, also in college, and we eventually got married, and I moved with him to his
home state, which is California. So I was a New Yorker
in exile in California and all the records I wanted
to do my research with were across the country,
and as the years went on, I thought, well, it will
go online eventually. Well, I could go visit
there, but then I had kids and I was home and
eventually, I kind of noticed, they’re not putting anything online. And every state has their own rules about what they want to put online, what they would like to
if they had more budget, what they would like to if they wanted to, and New York is surprisingly known as a black hole for genealogy. Some states are so much better. They will release the index, they will scan the old certificates, they will work with a historical society. New York City, New York State,
not like that at all, at all. And it was very surprising
and very frustrating, and that frustration built and built and I was trying to do my research and it was still a long-term hobby of mine but I’m across the country thinking, kind of don’t want to
fly across the country to go to the archives and
I have two little kids now. I can’t leave the house. Why
won’t they put it online? What’s taking them so long? And every other state
was coming along nicely, and New York State and New York City were not really doing deals for even basic vital records indexes, just the index of what they had. – Right, so we’re not even
talking about, you know, getting the records online. They weren’t even putting an
index to the records online. – Exactly, and it was so frustrating because there was one
little index here and there that had been created by volunteer groups, not by the government, but
by volunteer genealogists working at home off Excel spreadsheets. Really, people’s time and effort put in. Not the government’s, though. And it built to the point where in 2015, in January of 2015, as my New
Year’s resolution to myself, I thought, there has to be a better way. There has to be some way
to get an index online. Maybe they just don’t have
the money or the time. What if I request an index?
Just a very simple index. I’ll start with an old one
so that they have less reason to say no, and I will
get the index myself. I will digitize them
myself and get it online. I have a tech background.
Maybe that will work. And maybe they’ll even
actually be happy. I was naive. In January of 2015, my
New Year’s resolution was, no more Mister Nice Guy, no
more begging these records to go online, which
everybody had been begging. Let’s be clear here. Major companies like Ancestry, nonprofits like Family Search, smaller nonprofits, local groups, nothing was getting through. They’re like, no, you can
come see it at the archives, and that’s it. You can come here, but that… So I created a Freedom
of Information request and it turns out, what I had learned and sort of taught myself
out of my frustration was, there are different state level
Freedom of Information laws. They might be called The Sunshine Law. They might be called The Open Records Law. Utah’s law has the best name. They’re called GRAMA, G
R A M A, it’s an acronym. – Oh, nice!
– Yes! Someday, I want to use GRAMA’s
Law to get Grandma’s record. (laughing)
And New York had a law called just the Freedom of
Information Law, F O I L. This is not the same as
the federal one, FOIA, which a lot of people have heard of. FOIA is just for the federal agencies, but there are the state level ones, too. They’re just not as famous. – But these states do
have actually codified… – Yes. – Laws of what records are supposed to be available to the public.
– And they’re all, like, a little different here to there. Some cover the judiciary, some don’t. Some cover the legislature, some don’t, but I didn’t care about those records. I was thinking, well,
shouldn’t you cover records in a government archive? These are government-created records in a government archive,
our taxes paid for them. Taxes back in the day
created to, were used to create the records originally. They’re not private. And if I were there, I could see them, so there’s no privacy restriction. What’s the problem?
– Right. – And I didn’t know any genealogist who had ever done something like this. – So, you’re trying, sort
of, a legal requirement that these should be open.
– Exactly. Now, the law says that
unless it’s explicitly named as something that’s too private, the assumption is that it’s open, and there was no legal
requirement saying this, like, your archive records are closed. These are very old. So I sent a Freedom of
Information Law request which basically means an email to the New York City Municipal Archives. – So we’re talking New York City here. – I started with New York City. I thought, as much as I wanted
this for my own genealogy, I was thinking kind of long-term, so I thought, let me
specifically go for something with a limited scope,
limited years, very old, already open to the public,
if I were in New York, which I’m not. So, I made the email. Just an
email is all you really need. Making one of these requests is free. And very little in genealogy is free, unfortunately.
– That’s true. – So, I made a request saying, hi, I would like a copy
of this record set, the New York City marriage license index. Just the index to the licenses,
not even an actual license. – Just the index.
– Just to see, does my relative exist in
there as having gotten married? And I thought that the
archives would be thrilled if the index went online, because, if I wanted to order the
actual marriage license, I would order it from them, and they would get revenue for that! That revenue goes to them. They weren’t so thrilled. They said no, you cannot have a copy. Sure, they’re public records in the sense that you can come here and use them, but that’s not what the law requires. I was very frustrated. I appealed. They didn’t follow the rules
for handling an appeal. They said, they didn’t send a copy to the Committee On Open Government, which is the watchdog group for the state set up by the judiciary, I’m
sorry, by the legislature. I felt very frustrated and
I thought, what do you do? And unfortunately, what
you have to do sometimes is sue them, and that’s what I did. So I found an attorney, and that was actually
one of the hardest parts because I didn’t know anything about this. I am not an attorney.
My parents wish I were. (laughing)
My father is a lawyer. My sister’s a lawyer. My uncle’s a lawyer. I was kind of expected
to be a lawyer, too, and I didn’t go that route. I chose tech instead,
and now I was thinking, maybe I should have been a lawyer, because this could have been a lot easier. (laughing)
But… I did find an attorney. I explained to him my
case, and he said, okay, well, you know, this seems like
it’s an open and shut thing. So we had to file against
the Municipal Archives. Now, at this point, this is just still me. This is still individual, frustrated, very frustrated genealogist. But I thought, sue New York
City? That’s a big deal. That’s a little scary.
– Yeah, that’s, that’s really fighting
City Hall, in a big way. – Right, and I thought, you
know what? I need a posse. I need a group to do this with me. But I didn’t have a
group, so I invented one. So I created a website
called ReclaimTheRecords.org and the group is Reclaim The Records and at that point, it was just a website with an email list and some social media. That way, because it now existed, I was able to sue New York City, Brooke Schreier Ganz and
ReclaimTheRecords.org versus the Department of Records
and Information Services, which was the parent organization
of the Municipal Archives. – Okay.
– And we sued them, which means we, technically
speaking, it’s not a lawsuit. It’s a Freedom Of Information
Law Article 78 case in Supreme Court of New York.
(laughing) So we were the petitioners,
I think the right, we weren’t the plaintiff,
we were petitioners. So we weren’t saying, like, you did some, we’re saying basically, you
didn’t follow your own law. And they settled. They suddenly settled. We were supposed to see
them in court on a Friday. I was not actually even gonna be there, and that Monday, they called
up my attorney and said, if we give her what she
wants, will she go away? (laughing)
He said yes. And they said, okay. Settled the case. It was not that expensive at all, and a couple of weeks later,
I got 48 brand new microfilms in a box, sent to me in California. Suddenly they’re sitting
on my kitchen table. I thought, oh my gosh.
– The marriage license index for the City of New York…
– For those specific years. – For those specific years.
– Yeah, and the thing is, when you have the Freedom
Of Information Law, you can’t make a government
agency make an index for you. They can’t make any new work
or any new type of file. Whatever they have, you can get a copy of, so usually, people say they have papers, so I can get scans for 10
cents a scan or something. But it turned out, New York
City only ever had microfilms. They never indexed it themselves, so they had microfilms that
you could use at the archives. So, I got a box of brand new microfilms created from the master copies, which are nicer than the
ones at the archives, and that’s what they
sent to me for $35 a film plus $50 shipping to California. – Right. Wow.
– So that was the start. – And it was…
(coughing) Just making them follow their own laws. – Yes!
– And the procedures for, that were already in place.
– Exactly. It was trying to explain
to them, no, really, the Freedom Of Information Law covers your government archive, and just because you’ve
never had a request like this doesn’t mean it’s not true. At any point, they could have
checked with an attorney. They had three attorneys at the
Committee On Open Government who could have told them the same thing. I had an advisory opinion
in hand to show them, look, they say you’re
supposed to follow this. They didn’t care.
– Yeah. – And sometimes, we all
love our archivists. We all love our archives, but sometimes, they are not gonna give up what they want unless you fight them. They’re not gonna give up what they have unless you fight them,
and that’s what it took. But, that one case, broke the dam. As scary as it was, the Municipal Archives now can’t hold back for anybody, so not just for me or for my organization, but other genealogists have
been coming to them, too. People who I had never
known before have emailed me and said they had things
at the Municipal Archive they have been longing to get copies of. Now they know they can email them or call them and say, I want a copy of the such and such microfilms
or the such and such papers. I know you have them. You
have to give me copies. I’ll pay you for the
copies, it’s not free. – And I think that that’s
important to recognize. You didn’t get those 48
rolls of microfilm for free. You’re paying what their rate is. But, it’s just making them
follow their own rules, their own procedures.
– Exactly. – So, so you had that victory with the New York City Archives. – Right, and that was 2015,
and I thought, this is great. So I have a box of
microfilms on my table now. It’s like, well, I’ve gotten them out. I’ve cracked it and I
have these new records that have never left New York City before, never been on Family
Search, not on Ancestry. What do I do now? They’re
in microfilm format. Well, what I did is I
emailed David Rencher, who I didn’t know at all,
off of Family Search. – Now, I was gonna say, for
those of you who don’t know, David Rencher is the
chief genealogical officer for Family Search. He’s the top dog, so she
went right to the top. – Grand high muckety-muck,
and I didn’t know him at all, but I got his email through a friend and I was very very polite in email and what I said to him, actually, was, would you like these brand new
microfilms for Family Search, so somehow they’ll get online now, because I know you have
scanning equipment. This way, you can scan a
copy, put it on Family Search, and they’ll be free,
and there’ll be a copy in the Granite Mountain vaults. They won’t just be in New York City, which is a terrible idea, to have everything centralized
just in New York City. And he was so nice! He wrote me back and said, sure, we’ll be happy to put them on our website, but why don’t we scan
them for you for free, send you back the microfilms
and a free hard drive with all the images? And he did! I shipped it to Salt Lake City and they covered the cost of shipping and they scanned everything
and they sent it back and I got a hard drive full of images. Okay, so now I’ve gotten to the point where I have them digitized,
but they’re still not online other than potentially going
on Family Search someday, so I need to find a place to put them, and I realized there
are so many images here, because there were hundreds
of images per roll of film. It’s gonna actually cost a lot of money if I buy a server and set it up, which had been my original plan. Maybe I could crowdfund it, I wasn’t sure. But then I realized I could upload them to the Internet Archive, archive.org. – Archive.org.
– Archive.org, the Internet Archive,
it’s a nonprofit library based in San Francisco, and they let anybody upload
anything to their website. You can upload, they have books available for download or for reading online. They have TV, TV shows, they have music, they have software, I
uploaded the images, for free. I don’t have to pay the software, I’m sorry, the server
costs, and it was awesome. Suddenly, you could just flip through all these images online. You don’t have to be in New York. You don’t have to be awake
from 9:00 to 4:30, so… – Wow.
– And that was the start, and so I had a pipeline now. The pipeline was find a record set, make a Freedom Of Information request, if they don’t allow it
to go forward, sue them, get the records in the regular format, send them to Family Search,
have them be digitized, if needed, sometimes you don’t need that, and that’s always at
Family Search’s discretion. I’ve always said, if
you ever want to say no, that’s all right, but
they have been so generous and so kind to scan these things. Get back the digital copies, put them on the Internet
Archive, rinse, repeat. And that’s it!
– Nice! – And those records will
never be locked up again. They will always exist on the Internet. – Right, so what are some
of the other victories that you have had? I know you’ve had a couple
of big ones here lately in some, in a really tough state. – Yes, we’ve had a couple
that were very tough. So we went on from there and
just, it stated snowballing. I repeated it with other record sets. I started moving on to other states, and we incorporated as
a nonprofit last year. We actually got our IRS
tax, registered with the IRS to become a nonprofit
organization, a 501(c)(3), and we are just doing this more and more in other states and other
cities that had the same problem with these records being locked up. So we did a lot more in New York, because that was my original interest. We went after the New
York State Death Index, which had only been
available on microfiche in a limited number of New
York State libraries in upstate and one location in Nara in Manhattan. And we got copies of all
of those to scan them. It took us 17 months of fighting with the New York State
Department of Health. We did not have to sue them, but we did have to bring in
our attorney several times to write angry letters to them for things they were doing
that were breaking the law, which we had to point out to them. They tried to charge us $152,000. They tried to tell us there was… – A hundred and fifty-two
thousand dollars for an index. – An index. Here’s how
they came up with that. Rather than saying,
here is the exact number of microfiche sheets,
and it will cost, say, a fraction of a cent to scan them, and therefore multiply
that and here’s your cost, they just said, we’re gonna guess that there’s $2000 per year, and we’re gonna pretend it’s the same cost for every single year, even though other years
obviously have more deaths than other years, and so $2000
times the number of years, it’s 152 thousand dollars. Furthermore, we the New York
State Department of Health, have decided that you need
to give us 50% of this as a down payment in the
next 10 business days. Otherwise, we’re gonna
cancel your request. And at that point, I called
my attorney and said, they’re trying something that’s not legal. And again, these
organizations and agencies, they’re not used to people pushing back. They’re not used to genealogists and genealogy organizations
saying no, you can’t do this. I’m not asking you for the records. I’m telling you what your
requirements are under the law. So we pointed out to them,
there’s no such thing as an exploding offer in FOIL. You have to give us the actual cost based on the actual number of records. And after 17 months,
they finally came around. So that was the New
York State Death Index. Millions of records, all online now. We got the New York City Marriage Index for later years, 1930 to 1995. We got the Buffalo, New York Death Index, 1840-something, 1852, I believe, to 1944. We got the New Jersey
Marriage Index, 1901 to 2016! – New Jersey. New Jersey! – New Jersey, and actually
I want to talk about that because that was not one that I initiated. What I love about doing
Reclaim The Records is teaching other people, other
genealogists who love this, how they can file these requests. It’s not that hard. You don’t always get, you
know, such resistance. Sometimes New Jersey has been
great to deal with, usually. – Really?
– Yeah. – Because honestly, New Jersey
has a really tough reputation of being a hard state
to get records out of, so I’m surprised to hear that… – Well, the archives have been wonderful. It’s been the Department of Health that has been hard to deal with. – Ah!
– So here’s what happened. Another genealogist, who
sort of worked with us and been inspired by our work, decided, well, if she can
do that, I can do that, too, which is the point, you can do this too! So he wrote a letter
and in New Jersey’s law, it’s not called FOIL, it’s
called OPRA, not like Oprah, but O P R A, Open Public Records Act. That’s New Jersey’s
version of their state law, and so their state law, he wrote a request saying, I would like a
copy of all of your indexes to your marriages, your marriage records. Yes, they have privacy protections, but it says that you are
required to keep an index for every county that has
more than 5000 people in it, which is all the counties.
– Right. – He went and he read the law. You just have to really dig
in and find that website which is ugly and hardly updated, but find the actual law and see, well, index was not a word that was restricted. Certificates and licenses are
restricted. The index is not. Almost never. And he put this forward to New Jersey, and initially, the New Jersey
Department of Health said no. – No. – But New Jersey is one of those states that has mediation available, and so when he was about
to move to mediation, that’s when he contacted
me and he said, hey, I kind of did this thing on my own. I kind of need some
help now. Will you help? And I said yes, this is
what our organization should be doing.
– Right. – So we hooked him up with our attorney and we were raising the money, and we knew we would be able to help him afford the records if he won, but it turned out at the last minute, New Jersey had an
assistant attorney general who reviewed the case
before mediation started and she was just great, she was like, yeah, these are fine,
you can just have them. And she sent him a hard drive. Or, I believe that she even
gave it to him on Google Drive or something like that.
– Wow! – Just gave him the
records, and that was it. No court case. We have the records now. – Just had to make the request. – Right. – So, for someone who is, who is in a state where they, they suspect that this set of records should be open, or at least
this index should be open and available to everyone,
how do they get started? – Okay, good question. So, let me explain what happened to me when I wanted to get a
state I knew nothing about, which is Missouri. Somebody recommended it
to me saying, you know, I love what you’re doing in New York. Can you look at other states?
Can you look at Missouri? There is no Missouri
birth index post-1910, at least not one that’s public. Missouri death certificates are public if they’re more than 50 years old and people do make indexes from it, but there’s not a more modern death index. So I thought, well, let
me see what the law says. That’s what you should do
first, look up the law. And I mean by this, two laws. One is the state’s vital records laws. Just Google name of your
state, vital records law, vital records act, find
the actual state laws that are online somewhere,
probably in a very ugly format, and then, also, look up your
state’s Sunshine Law name. Or it could be the Sunshine Law, it could be Open Public Records Law. There are websites that help. There’s a website called Ballotpedia that will have all 50 states plus DC, all their individual laws with links, and there are other
organizations out there will help you explain them,
many of them are free. Sometimes they’re journalist-related, because journalists use these laws a lot, but they will explain, they have websites, like, here are the things that
this particular state exempts that other ones don’t. Here is what this one’s
a little quirky about. They’re kind of all the same,
and you can just read them. They’re online. And it’s
always free to file. You just file with the government agency that holds those records and you cite why you think they’re
not legally held back, there’s no privacy restriction because, fill in the blank here. I want a copy from this to this. Try to have a date on both ends to make it as specific as
possible so they can’t, they will try to mess it up, so try to make it as specific
as possible why you want them. – So, don’t just say, I want a copy of the birth record index that you have. Say, looking for the birth records index from 1900 to 1920.
– Something like that. – Something like that.
– And if you know for sure that they’re already on
file, say the historical, or not historical society, at
a government-run repository of some sort, like a
city or county archive, something like that, or a state library, you can cite that to them exactly. It’s already on file at such and such. I could use it if I’m
there, but I’m not there. Can I have a copy? And you have to say, I
will pay you for the copy. You have to make that offer to pay. In a small number of states,
you might need to say, I am an individual genealogist
or I’m a nonprofit. I am not a for profit company.
So just stick that line in. – Right.
– And that’s about it. And you send it off to whoever
their Freedom Of Information Records Access Officer is, or OPRA Records Access Officer is. They have to get back to
you in a couple of days. Every state’s a little different, like a week or two usually is fine. They probably won’t.
They’ll probably be late. If they go more than a month,
that’s when you move forwards and you contact them again,
call them if you have to. Harass them, honestly, to say hi, you were supposed to be
answering these requests in X number of days,
you have not done that. Can you help me with this please? You don’t have to, you have to be nice at least in the beginning, but firm, because you’re not asking for a favor. You’re telling them what
they’re responsible to do as a government employee
under their state law. And that’s the attitude, that’s
what makes things happen. – Right, so, it’s being very
clear about your request. – Yes.
– State that you are willing to pay, that you are an individual, or if you are with a
nonprofit, that that’s, but just be very specific about that. Cite that it’s already available
in a government agency, repository, like a, like
you say, a state archive, a state library, a county
archive or something like that. – Right. – And then just keep following up, and… – And if you run into problems,
contact Reclaim The Records and we’ll be happy to help you. (laughing) – Excellent. So, if people do need to
get in contact with you or want to read more about
this awesome project, where can they find you? – They can find us online.
We’re all over the Internet. – Wait, online?
– Yes, completely! (laughing) So you can find our website
at Reclaim The Records, that’s plural, ReclaimTheRecords.org. We’re also on Facebook. Look
for Reclaim the Records. We’re also on Twitter at @ReclaimTheRecs. Records was too long. We’re available in all three versions. On our website, we have the ability to sign up for our email list. We really only send email
about once every six weeks. We’re not trying to
bother people too much. On Facebook and on Twitter especially, we are much more active. We answer questions quicker that way. You can also email me at [email protected] – Excellent. Brooke, first, thank you for
everything that you’re doing and what Reclaim The Records is doing. – Thanks!
– And thank you for… Answering my questions today.
– Any time. – This has been great. Everybody, go check out
ReclaimTheRecords.org and if you want to find
out more about genealogy and how to find your family history, please subscribe here
either to my YouTube channel or here on my website. Take care.