Reclaim The Records: Lecture at the 2016 IAJGS conference in Seattle

Alright, good afternoon everybody. With the number of people
here, I’m sure that everybody has heard all about
Brooke and her wonderful Reclaim The Records. [applause] Who is a modern heroine of genealogy. But I’m thrilled to introduce her. She is founder of Reclaim The Records, a not-for-profit activist group that uses state Freedom of Information requests to return genealogical
records to the public. She’s the former Vice
President of Gesher Galicia. She designed and built their website. Including its innovative
All Galicia Database. The underlying search engine codebase, called LeafSeek, was released by Brooke. It’s a free open source
project and she won the 2012 RootsTech Developer Challenge for this. Second place. Still pretty awesome. And she then refined it
to build the bilingual All Israel Database for
the Israel Genealogical Research Association. She lives in California
and I will turn it over to her to tell us all
about the wonderful things she’s doing for the
genealogical community. [applause] Good afternoon everybody. I’m going to be standing
over here and then speaking over there a little bit. I’m so glad you could all join me. I’m so psyched for this talk. I have a lot of material to cover. I apologize if I speak
quickly, I am a New Yorker as we will learn in this
and I’ve had my coffee and I have a lot of ground to cover. So if you could please hold
your questions to the end, I will try to talk to everyone,
I’m here through Sunday. You can always grab me in the hallways. Reclaim The Records, using
Freedom of Information laws for genealogical
and archival research. Freedom is not free, but
this is, feel free to take pictures, tweet it, whatever. I’m going to put this entire
slide deck online tomorrow morning on,
which is our website. So do not feel the need
to take notes because it’ll all be there for you. Slide deck is under
Creative Commons license. Hi, if you don’t know
me, I am Brooke Ganz. I’m a genealogy nerd, I
have various accomplishments you can read about. Basically I love genealogy. I especially love the intersection of genealogy and technology. I love building websites for
making records available. And that’s one part of
the problem with getting records online, is the
ability to publish them. But what this talk is about
is about record acquisition. And how to get records that you’ve been told are inaccessible. I grew up in New York,
I was born in New York, I was married in New York. My whole family’s from New York. They got off the boat and
they stayed in New York, except for one little
branch in Connecticut, but they eventually made it to New York. And I always thought
I’d be in New York too, but I married a guy from California. I met him in college, moved to California, been here ever since. And the records I want are in New York. And it is very difficult
to do genealogical research in New York from farther away, as many of you know. Every state does their
own thing in terms of putting records online or
not putting records online, as the case may be. And New York is uniquely difficult, which is very surprising
given its prominence and the port of entry for
so many American citizens and original thirteen colonies. It’s very, very difficult
to deal with and the organizations there are not proactive. Poland, for example, has
started putting all of their birth, marriage, and death records online in lovely websites. New York state, New York City, nothin’. So I love New York, okay
I’m a New Yorker in exile, but yet this talk is about
how I sued them twice in the past 11 months. [laughter] So how did it come to this? Let me explain. I have a group, which I created,
called Reclaim the Records. We are not-for-profit,
we are not a registered non-profit yet, I will get to that. We are a not-for-profit activist group. We’re not a JGS, we’re not
gonna serve coffee cake. We have a virtual presence online. We are all about making records available. We want to spread the word
that you can use Freedom of Information laws to
get genealogical records released to the public,
you can be an activist not just a passive consumer of products. We want to crowdsource
ideas for whatever other record sets that we haven’t attacked yet, there are so many out there. We want to list our
future targets publicly so that everybody knows what we’re up to. We want to work in the
open through websites like MuckRock, which I will
talk about later too. We want to be an educational
resource and advice portal. We want to talk to you over
e-mail about your ideas. And we want to be a voice for change. A voice for the individual
user that is not necessarily a for-profit
company or a large non-profit, but rather
individual researchers whose resources are being denied to them. We have an e-mail newsletter,
you can keep up with us that way, just sign up
on That’s probably our
lowest point of contact. Facebook, we are somewhat more active. We post a little more often. Twitter, we post a lot, it’s
a lot of snarky commentary. It’s up to you which method
you’d like to consume our news by, I’ll leave this to you. Our goal, our job, is to put it online for free for everyone. That means put records
online, images online, data online, tools to
work with the data online. For free means free. As in no costs, but also no restrictions. No copyrights, no usage restrictions, no log-ins and for everyone means anybody. It means that other groups
are welcome to take our data and our images
that we win and put them on their websites, do their
own transcription projects, do an art project, I don’t care. These are public records and we want them returned to the public. Okay, that’s basically
what we do in a nutshell. We have hundreds of thousands
of genealogical records already online and millions going online in the next few months. We have no copyrights, no restrictions, we have about 63 sets on our to-do list. We are not-for-profit,
in the sense that this is my hobby, but it has
become so encompassing and large and has such a huge
potential in front of it, that we are strongly considering becoming a 501(c)3 non-profit. If you know anything
about non-profits and you are interested in record access issues, please talk to me because we are strongly considering filing next
year to become a real grown up non-profit. Okay, highlights of today’s talk. Open data, the Freedom of Information Act, and various state Freedom
of Information laws. How do you use these? How did we use these? What are the some of the crazy things that happened to us along the way? I understand I’m going a little
fast through these slides. I hope you’ll forgive me
because there is so much to cover and like I said,
these slides will all be online starting tomorrow. What you need to know, is
there is the way things are supposed to work and the
ways things they actually work. This discrepancy is both
around Open Data policies and Freedom of Information laws. I need to warn you all, I am not a lawyer. This is not an excuse for
talking to an actual lawyer who is educated about the
Freedom of Information laws in your state or the Federal
Freedom of Information Act. I am not a lawyer, but
my parents wish I were. [laughter] I grew up in a family of
lawyers, I was expected to become a lawyer, I
chose my college major with the idea I’d be a lawyer. I took the LSAT’s, I did
fine, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger on actually
going to law school. I just couldn’t do it,
because I love tech. I love working in tech
and that’s where I decided to go instead and to me, tech
was creative and interesting. You could build new things
and who wanted the law? The law universe was set with
what was already done and you had to work in a
really narrow rule set, who wanted that? That’s what I thought. So my sister became the
lawyer, it’s all good. [laughter] And part of the tech world
these days, is something called open data. Open data is the idea
that certain data sets, particularly ones produced
by government entities, whether they’re agencies or
states or cities, whatever, this data should should
be freely available because we paid for them to use it in the course of their business. This can be anything
from agricultural data to the shape files of your
local school districts to crime statistics. Anything that they’re producing
any way in some government agency that’s paid for
with your tax dollars, we ought to have a copy of that too. And that’s become sort of a
real theme on the internet in the past few years. Most cities have a website like this. Open Data San Francisco,
open data your town or your state, and there’s even one, here’s one for San
Francisco where some of the ones they’re highlighting are a list of every movie ever shot in San Francisco. And crime reports and you
know, geographical locations, things like that. There’s also, which
the national Open Data portal. And they have all sorts
of interesting things too. Including things like
this from Social Security, this is not the Social
Security death master file or death index, this is a
list of all babies names that have applied for
a Social Security card from like 1880 to the present. So you might think, what does
anybody do with this data? Well if you publish on your
site a list of all the crimes, someone might make an
app showing what areas are safer to live in than others. If you publish the shape files
for your school districts, you might know when you’re
browsing sites like Zillow or Redfin, oh this house I’m looking at is in this school district. Well they know that
from using this data for the country or the city
or the state puts out. So for example, this database,
I guess Social Security just does it for fun. Like what are top ten most
popular names this year. But people remix data when it’s open. They remix it and they make cool new stuff like the Baby Name Voyager. Which I used when I was
looking for names for my children born in 2007 and 2010. This is updated through 2014
and because the data’s open you can use it in ways it
wasn’t intended to be used. In this case it was, oh
Emma and other old fashioned names are really making a comeback. Emma, Sadie, Pearl, Ruby, all these names you can see on this graph
they start coming back. And then there’s the names
that aren’t coming back. [laughter] So you can see, with open
data you can do really cool stuff, so I thought originally, I had no idea about the
Freedom of Information laws, I thought why don’t I
make an open data request for New York genealogical data. Because I want it, I live in California, I’m tired of having to
write them e-mails or letters to which they maybe respond. If they do, it could be the
wrong record and they don’t respond timely manner and they’re not gonna put it online some other way, why don’t I use this
great new open data tool? So I made a request on
their open data portal in New York City back in 2013. And they never responded to it. And I tracked down the people
who worked on open data in New York City on Twitter and on e-mail, and on the phone. And I talked to them. And they all said, yeah this sounds great, yeah we could probably
put some of that online. It never happened. Because the problem
with the open data laws is they are ambitious,
but they don’t have teeth in them if you don’t comply. If a person requests a
data set and it’s not being put online, nothing really
happens, there is no teeth. So this was really bumming
me out, because I picked tech over law ’cause tech was gonna make great things happen. And tech was lying to me
and it was not putting things online and this
is when I realized maybe I should have been a lawyer. [laughter] It was a fleeting thought,
but it did occur to me. So that’s when I realized I’m gonna use the law as a layperson. So I had learned about the
Freedom of Information Act and state level Freedom
of Information laws. And that’s really what we’re
gonna talk about here today. Now this is sort of the main
list, what you need to do to use these laws. I know it sounds complicated,
but if I can figure this out, you all can figure this out. You have to find out,
what records that I want even exist in the first place. And honestly, that is
sometimes the hardest question because there are places
like the New York City Municipal Archives who
do not publish an index of what they hold. They are like a restaurant
that doesn’t give you the menu and there are a
lot of places like this where you don’t even know what they have and maybe they weren’t thought
of as genealogical records, but they’re useful to you. And the finding aids are
not really connected to the broader genealogy
community and there’s a lot of problems like that. So you need to know what exists that potentially I could use. Who has them? Are they part of the government? And don’t get tripped up
by that because you can’t use the Freedom of
Information law or act on a non-government agency. You can’t go after like,
I’ve had people e-mail me about the Archdiocese of New York, I’m like sorry I can’t help you. I can’t help you for your private cemetery or groups like that, it has
to be a government agency. You have to know what law applies. Are these records actually withheld? Are they withheld by some
other law, not really FOIL? And who can help you on your goal, on your path to find this goal? So we talk about FOIA versus FOIL. FOIA with the A at the
end, is the famous one. This is for federal agencies. This is the one you hear about
in the news all the time. It is for the Justice
Department, it is for Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. It is recently updated
slightly by President Obama. We all use FOIA all the time
and you don’t even know it. When you’re getting copies of the SS-5, somebody’s original Social
Security application, which often has their mother’s
maiden name, very useful. You’re using FOIA
technically on the backend. For naturalization records
through the USCIS portal, technically using FOIA, things like that. So you’re kind of using
it, but you don’t really know you’re using it. What I’ve been using so far
is not FOIA, it is FOIL. Which is the state level laws. Every state and DC has their own law. They’re mostly the same
from state to state. Some are a little better than others. They all have their own names. Utah’s law has the best
name, it is GRAMA, G R A M A. They might be known as Sunshine
Laws or Open Records Laws. Most of these are about 40 years old. Most of them came into being
around the time of Watergate, mostly because of Watergate. And they allow people in
the state to have access to their government’s information. What is being done with
your money and in your name. There are 51 different
laws, because there is 50 states plus DC. This is a great website
to be able to learn more. This is Ballotpedia, it’s
like Wikipedia but for election and public debate, things like that. It has more information
about each one of these laws, you can click through. Making one of these requests is free. Which how often do you
hear about something free in genealogy? Not that often. If you need to appeal a denial, also free. A few of them, if you they
are not listening to your denial, you can sometimes
go to an ombudsman or a panel instead of going to court. I keep going to court. Because that’s where we end up. But if you go to court, you
can go often get your money back if you win the records. Not always, but sometimes. 47, about to be 48,
states have that option if you can prove the records
were wrongfully withheld, you can usually get your attorneys fees. Which means you basically
got all this stuff done for free, just a lot of tsuris. In five states, if you
win, automatically you get your money back and that
is California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey. And a couple states, like
Maryland, if they really mess up and they were absolutely
withholding for no good cause, they get fined. I haven’t used that yet. Who can you FOIL? You send a records request to an agency. An agency, at least in New
York, is a state or municipal department, et cetera, et cetera. Anybody who took tax
money to exist basically. Most states are pretty
similar what they call an agency and every
agency has a FOIL Officer. If you go on most state
or city government website you will often see a page
somewhere, usually on the Contact Us page, like who
is their FOIL Officer. What is their FOIL e-mail
address to ask them questions. In New York state and
several other states, judicial records and state
legislature records are exempt. Sometimes Governor records too. Then these are sort of the
minutia, you have to look into for your own state
compared to other states. That means, from a
genealogical point of view, stuff like adoption files,
court cases, divorce cases, name changes, naturalization,
that’s all done in the courts. So I can’t file FOIL for those. I can use other laws
to get copies of those. In New York there’s a judicial law 255. Other states have their own laws. There are other ways to get records too, but you know, you have to
know what are the limits of this Freedom of
Information law you’re using. We have some workarounds. This is the best part of FOIL. You only pay the actual costs of copying. You’re not asking for a favor,
you’re asking for a copy. And you pay the actual costs. When I won records from New
York City Municipal Archives, I got them for 35
dollars a microfilm roll. Which is the actual costs
of copying a microfilm roll. I had to pay for shipping. And they could have charged
me a little bit for the labor to produce that,
but only at the rate of the lowest paid person who worked there who’s capable of doing the labor. They didn’t charge me for labor. So this is a really nice
way to get like millions of records for relatively
little money if you get to the point where they
finally send you the invoice. ‘Cause the invoice would
be the actual costs. Another thing to note about
FOIL, if you’re talking to an archive or a library and
you’re like, I know you have tax records or I know you
have the chauffeurs’ licenses from the city from the
1930’s and I want a copy, they have to give it to
you in whatever format they have it. You cannot tell them, could
you please index all of that and turn it into a
database and send me like a lovely formatted database. Not gonna work. So the records I’ve been
getting generally they were only in microfilm in the first place, so I had to get the microfilm copies. And I found someone very
nice, I’ll talk about later, to copy them to digital image for me. But if they have them in
paper copies, if you know they have paper copies, you
can usually ask them under most laws for either paper
copies, for which they can only charge you usually 10
cents a copy or you can ask for scans for slightly more money. So you know, you have to
sort of see what they have. And they have to deliver. Okay, I’m gonna go a little
fast just ’cause I want to get to the meat of
some of the stuff we won. When you are looking for
records, you have to know their parent agency. When I was looking for records from the New York City Municipal
Archives, the parent agency is not the archives, the
parent agency is something called DORIS, D O R I S, Department of Records
and Information Services. So when you, maybe you bring a lawsuit, you need to know who you’re
actually dealing with. If you’re looking for birth or death, it might be with the Health Department. There might be a second
copy kept somewhere else before they had to do with the state copy or the state registration. Marriage and divorces might
be under the judiciary. As we said, judiciary
sometimes not covered by FOIL, depends on your state. Find out the parent agency. If something’s in an archive or a library, it might be Department of
Education who you’re looking for. Even though really it’s a library, you’re really dealing
with the Department of Ed. It’s weird. City Clerk’s offices are tricky. Because they might have dual functions. They may function as yes I’m
the clerk for such and such county, but I have records
that are not judicial. I have records that are
like, a list of everyone buried in the local city cemetery. Which happens sometimes. Or some other record that
is not a judicial record that is their other work related things. And those can be open. What can you not ask for? You can not ask for
anything that’s already been absolutely ruled out
by a state legislature or a Federal law. Basically nothing that’s
like too intrusive on people’s privacy. That’s basically the rule. That could be crime victim
information, judicial records, educational records, governor’s office. For a real life version
of how this effects people in Michigan, they’re
considering changing their state’s Freedom of
Information Law so it does cover their governor’s
office to deal with the Detroit, the Flint water issue. Things like that, what is available and what is not available
has very real consequences in terms of what kind of
records you can ask for. Can you just FOIL a certificate? No, and this is why. Because they have laws saying,
oh for a copy of a birth certificate, you need to
be X number of years old and or you need to be a
relative and you have to prove it already that you’re a relative. They can set that, they’re
allowed to say, you know, I don’t like it, but
they’re allowed to say only these people and these
times can have a record. For a specific certificate. However, can you FOIL an index? Yes, almost always, at
least I found so far. Because the index is a
usually extract they made for their own use, so they
can find the certificates. The certificates have
all sorts of rules and registrations and requirements. But the index was a
government created record, so why not go after the index? Seems like it’s been working. Can you FOIL another
type of records index? Probably yes. If they made their own database,
like an access or something on their own computer to
look up something just for their own personal use in the office, they made it on a government
computer for government records on government time, you
can probably FOIL that. Can you FOIL for the right
to just view an informational copy, not like get a real
certificate which implies paper, but can you use
FOIL just to view it if there aren’t any other
outstanding privacy restrictions? Maybe, we haven’t tried
this yet, but it’s something I want to work on in the next year. There are many states
for example where all death certificates that
are older than 50 years old are considered open to the public. Anyone can write in and get one. But you’re still writing
in buying a certificate and they’re allowed to
sell it to you ’cause they have a fee structure. Well what I wanna know is,
all of those are kept on microfilm, can I FOIL a
copy of the microfilm? I’m not asking for the
certificate, I’m asking for the microfilm, which is
a different type of record. It’s not a certificate
until it’s on paper. I don’t know, let’s find out. Okay once you know their parent agency, find the name and contact
for their FOIL Officer. You write them a nice e-mail. And you can submit
everything in a FOIL request through e-mail, through postal mail, or my favorite Super helpful,
as in muckrake, but MuckRock. They are a clearinghouse
for Freedom of Information requests in terms of
Freedom of Information Act, Federal and also every state. Every little agency is
basically in their database. If not they’ll add one for you. And you can create a FOIA
request in the top right hand corner in the blue button. That also applies to FOIL
to state level requests. They are starting to do news
stories, basically everyday things that are cool. Every time someone famous
dies, they FOIA his federal, FBI records, see if there
was anything interesting. They basically are a
great way just to learn about all this. And if you want to create a
request, they will let you make an account for free. They gave me like a higher
pro account for free which was nice of them. You basically create a request. I want this thing. In the white area you put
down, give me this thing, and you explain more. I’ll tell you what to
write there in a minute. You tell what city it’s
going to and what agency within that city or
state, and they’ll send it to the right person and they
will use their from address on all the mail or the e-mail. It’ll all be coming from
a specific ID number at their MuckRock headquarters in Boston. So you’re not giving up your
address or anything like that. It’s nice to have a
little privacy like that. It’s also a great way to
organize your requests. If you’re someone like
me, who starts sending out a lot of requests and you need to see like did they respond to that yet? Where is that? Is that on appeal? They’ll let you see everything
organized and who it’s going to and what was the
last time you heard from them. And that’s really helpful
just to keep things involved. If somebody doesn’t respond
to your FOIA request, they’ll start keep e-mailing
them every two weeks, please respond, please respond. They will help you and
that is really something you want to get involved with. Okay secret sauce, what
do you write when you are writing a Freedom of Information Law or Freedom of Information Act request? Hi, my name is Brooke Schreier Ganz, and I’m making a records request under, MuckRock will fill in the next part. They’ll tell you what
law ’cause they saw what state you were sending it
to and they’ll tell you what you should be listing. I am seeking, give an
example what you’re seeking. In this case, I want the
New York state death index from this date to this date. And I’ll explain just
like a sentence or two, I think they should be online because. Don’t give them your life story. Don’t rail on them for being
idiots, even if they are. Just sort of say explicitly what you want and give a start and end date. Make it as specific as
possible and make it as hard as possible for them to
mess up, because they will. You may need to say, in
some places, I’m a private individual not a for-profit
company, stick that in. In a very, very small
number of states including Virginia, you might need to
say, I’m a legal resident of this state. If you are looking for
Virginia records and you are not a Virginia resident,
there are ways at MuckRock to find a proxy filer for you. And you tell them what format
you want the records in. I want microfiche, microfilm, database. If you now the records are
paper, you could say I want paper copies or I want scans. I’m willing to pay up to,
stick a number in there. And to contact me first
before you start copying. That’s basically it, this
is basically the whole thing you have to write and that’s it. And I know you all can write letters. And there are some example
letters on MuckRock you can search through, hundreds of them. Other ways to help yourself. Most states have organizations
that can help you with questions, they might be
aimed a little more towards journalists, but some are
really good for the public. This one, I got so lucky that
New York has this amazing website called the Committee
On Open Government. It’s basically three guys in an office. Or one guy, one woman,
and an admin in an office in Albany, funded by the legislature. They actually get funding
to help people in New York file requests and they
post all this stuff online about all their previous
advisory opinions. What they thought about
previous cases and they break them down, not just alphabetically,
but by subject matter. And not just by subject
matter, but they have separate entries there for marriage records versus matrimonial records. Which I didn’t know was a
distinction, but apparently is. And you can read through
what they’ve said about other people’s requests and you
can just absorb and learn what they did and what didn’t work also. And you can figure out, oh
zip codes you’ll probably find in a database, they
can’t cut out the zip code. You can learn about what
is okay for your requests. And your state probably
has something like this. Or an organization of
journalists who can do pretty much the same thing. As I’ve said, there are 51 different laws. You can just go through and pick the one you wanna learn about. But there are 57 different
vital records jurisdictions. ‘Cause that’s 50 states, plus
DC, plus their territories, plus New York City, which
is considered like a state separate from the rest
of the United States. So I’m in this weird situation
where I have a New York background and I live across the country. And New York City and New
York state have totally separate vital records laws. Totally separate, both
convoluted ways of getting records, but legally I
only have to learn one law. Which is the New York state
Freedom of Information Law, the 40 year old law. So I’ll learn this one law. I might get records from both areas, Westchester county where I grew up and New York City where
all my ancestors grew up. This sounds good. So I start making lists
of who has all these things in every state. New York State Department of Health has birth, marriage, death. Clerks may have copies of
birth, marriage, and death in the index. Department of Education runs
the archives and the library. And the court system, I’m
kind of out of luck because FOIL in New York doesn’t
cover the court system. New York City, a little different. Department of Health does birth and death, but the city clerk does
the marriages and the civil union records and the index. All the cool old stuff ends
up in the Municipal Archives, the New York City Department of Records and the Municipal Archives,
that’s all the old certificates, old indexes. Again court system, I can’t really use. So I’m like alright, I am
so fed up with having to not get any records out of New York. I’m going to use the
Freedom of Information Law in New York to get records out of them. ‘Cause that stuff is old. And it’s probably the
smallest number of reasons for them to say no to me, I thought. So at this point, I’m
thinking like strategy. Okay I can’t use these open data policies, they’re well-meaning tech triumphalism. They don’t actually do anything yet. They need better training,
better teeth in the law. I’m gonna have to go on
states where there’s good case law, where there’s
people who can help me, like the Committee on Open Government. Where I might be able to
get my attorney’s fees back and some states you can
even apply for a fee waiver if you can prove you’re doing
it in the public interest. I don’t know anyone who’s
ever proven to abhor that genealogy’s in the public interest, but I think we have a really
good shot at saying that. We’re the second largest online hobby. I think you all know what the first is. [laughter] I want new records, I don’t
want to go after anything that’s already on FamilySearch
microfilm or Ancestry, I want stuff that nobody has. Because I’m sick of this
that they’re not doing anything proactive, I want
to go after old stuff, because this way they’re
not gonna slap me down with privacy laws. And I wanna build on my
win, because if this works, oh man I wanna get more
records and I wanna use the same way of doing it. So pick the low-hanging fruit
first, that was my idea. So New York Department of
Records and Municipal Archives, I choose you! [laughter] I wrote a message on January fifth, but it was really my
New Year’s Resolution. This was to Tracing The
Tribe, shoutout to a great Facebook group for Jewish genealogy. New Year’s Resolution,
no more Mister Nice Guy! No more humbly beseeching
governmental entities that hold genealogical
records for access to our own data. And this was me starting to go after the New York City Municipal Archives. I overshot a little. I knew there was something
there that I wanted to get and that was something
most people, even New York researchers don’t know about. It is the New York City
clerk’s marriage index 1908 through 1929. It was kept by the city clerk originally. It is now at the Municipal
Archives ’cause it’s old. And I only wanted to go
after the index ’cause I knew legally that would
probably be easier than trying to convince them,
you know, the thing I would like to try but haven’t tried yet, to go after the microfilms
of the certificates. In New York City, there
are two different types of marriage related documents. And people don’t really get this. Number one is the one everyone
here probably knows about if you got a marriage record. There is a health department certificate. These run through 1937. ItalianGen, which is a
non-profit volunteer genealogy group made an
index to all of these. Again, New York City puts nothing online. So volunteers are doing
this and giving the indexes to them and hosting it themselves
on their own databases. Which is shameful. So if you want to use marriage indexes, you’re using our free labor. Not the city’s to search for example, through the Steve Morse
front end to their website for grooms and brides who
are married in New York and the health department
certificates through 1937, you get something like this. You can get the bride
name and you’ll end up with something like this. This is my great grandparents’
marriage certificate. Most people have seen something
like this from New York. Page one has, you know, parents
names, where you’re from, first marriage, age, bla bla bla. Second page is kind of useless. Okay, this is what most
people think of but there’s a second type of marriage record. And that is the city clerk’s records, the ones I wanted to get. Because they are kept from
1909 to the present day. And they are three page
documents, they are totally different and they have more information. The three pages is that
the couple had to go to the city clerk to say I want
to apply to get a license. And I will sign a affidavit
saying I’m okay to get a license, I’m not married to anyone else and I don’t have VD. And I’m going to eventually
get a certificate. And the three are stapled together. And there’s three different
sets of handwriting. So you have a lot more
opportunities to potentially read a name or a town
that was hard to read the first time around. This is the same couple,
Nathan and Estelle, and this is page one of their
city clerk office records. So you can see this is the
affidavits, it gives a little more information, it gives
where the parents are born. You don’t get that on the other one. Second page, the actual
certificate filled out by their Rabbi. Third page, the license,
I believe also sort of part of this is the
application sort of with it. The page format changes a
little from year to year. I’ll go into closeups in just a sec. Extra awesome things this
whole record set has, bride occupation,
couple’s cities of birth. Often not just always
the countries of birth. Parents’ countries of
birth, were they widowed, did either spouse die, if so, when. Were they divorced, where
was the divorce granted, are you really sure you’re
really legally divorced? And your home addresses of the witnesses, which helped me in many cases. For example, here is my great grandmother Esther, which is written as Estelle here. She had an occupation,
bookkeeper, she worked outside of the house, she’s not
22 here, she’s lying. [laughter] But it’s nice to see
recognition of this sort of thing on this extra
informative document. The addresses for the
witnesses, these are both relatives and now I have
an extra source for them. The bottom of the 1932
licence and application explains that all of
these people both have one previous dead spouse. My female relative here
is lying, she’s got two. But then in 1937, they
add all of these new lines like, what were the
grounds for the divorce? Where was it filed? Are you sure you’re divorced? And remember you can’t
get New York state divorce records for 100 years
and they’re not covered by FOIL, but you can get this record. And this will help you learn
about the divorce a little bit. So you always need to look at new places. And 10% more records. This is the most important part. Because some of these people
filed for the application stuff and didn’t get married. Or they filed and for some
reason, the certificate, the health department
certificate the famous one, never made it to the health department. Or was mislabeled or something. This is a better source of records. So I’m like great, where do I sign up? I’m gonna get these records. Problem, they’re only on microfilm, they’re only downtown New York. It’s the only place you can see them. The New York City Municipal
Archives won’t give them to anybody, they
won’t let family search index even for free. They are just no, no,
these are mine, mine, mine. You can try to mail order them. They used to be much
harder, these days they have to admit they have them. They can’t do search on a soundalike name, ’cause they’ve never been digitized. So you can’t search Betty for Elizabeth, or Schfortz for Schwartz, or anything. And if you go to the archives
and they give out this sheet about all the great stuff they have, they don’t even list
these records on them. So at this point, it’s like alright, these are the ones I’m going after. This is what I’m going to do for my first Freedom of Information lawsuit. Well I didn’t think it
was a lawsuit at first. So this is basically a
summation of various e-mails. I did this all over e-mail, you can too. Hi, can you give me all
your marriage records all the way up to the present day? And I want them in a database. They were like no, we don’t
have them in a database. We only have microfilms,
do you want microfilms? Oh and we have two different sets, are you sure you want them? I’m like oh okay, new
e-mail like a week later. Okay I want the index and
I just want the cool city clerk’s office stuff
because no one else has it and I think it should be better known. They said yes. On official letterhead,
they said yes to me. Okay great and they gave me a price quote. And then I asked them, okay how can I pay and do you take credit cards? And they didn’t respond. And I asked again. Finally wrote back and
like oh did we say those were available, I’m sorry, they’re not. And like this is crazy,
I’m gonna appeal this. So I call the people, the
Committee on Open Government in New York and like, hi I
don’t know what I’m doing, can you help me? And they were so nice and
they talked to me on the phone for free and I explained. They didn’t know anything about genealogy, but they said, okay so
you’re telling me this index, you could go see it on
site at the archive. Like could we walk in the
building, you could use it and it would be a microfilm, okay. But I live in California,
I don’t wanna fly to New York to go look up the index. And they’re not really good
about responding to the mail. And they said, well if
it’s available and you’ve offered to pay, I can’t
believe they actually offered to give it you,
like you should get a copy, these are public records, they are a public organization agency. I’m like okay, so I appealed and the Committee on Open Government
wrote a non-binding, but very helpful, advisory
opinion which they copied me, and they copied the archives and said, yeah these records should be open. I don’t know why you’re
not giving them to her, these are public records. And the Archives said, well
yes they’re public records, meaning you can come here and use them. I’m like no, they’re
public records so therefore they’re part of the
Freedom of Information Law so I can get copies, how can I pay you? I’m like oh my God, they’re
not gonna back down. And this was the first place
where I started realizing about the difference between
learning about the law and learning about what really happens. And what really happens
is I had to sue them. I was stonewalled, they
didn’t follow any procedures, what do you do in that case? Luckily the law tells you. Every Freedom of Information
Law will tell you, if they don’t follow the
rules, here’s where you go. And in New York that’s called
filing a legal petition, an Article 78 legal petition. Basically you are claiming
to the Supreme Court of New York, which is not
actually supreme in New York, it’s like misnamed. You’re telling them, this
person didn’t follow their rules of their job as
a government contractor or government employee, which
is like a serious charge. I’m like yeah, this is gonna happen. This is gonna happen,
I’m gonna find someone who’s gonna help me with this and I did. And this was one of the hardest parts, was who do you hire for a lawyer? I don’t know anything about this. But I found a case that was similar. It wasn’t genealogy, but it was similar. There was an artist who
lived in New York named Melinda, wanna say Melinda
Hunt, that might not be her last name, and
she wanted to learn about Hart Island, which is the
burial place in New York City for stillbirths and for the indigent. So this is pauper’s field,
it’s an island and it’s been that way for like over a hundred
years. She wanted access to
the death record books of everyone buried there. A couple years ago she filed
a Article 78 legal petition against the Department of
Corrections, who own the island and own the books,
meaning the jails, and she won. She got access to the
books, they made a database that read that information is open. And I thought, you know,
that’s kind of similar, she got an index and she got
it through this article 78. I should look up who she used. And I found her lawyer
who was with a new firm, a man named David Rankin,
law firm Rankin and Taylor in New York City, I highly recommend them. And they happily took on the case. Like yeah, we love doing
Freedom of Information law, this is really important to us. They like public service law, it’s really their bread and butter. They are all about doing the right thing and fighting The Man. So we filed. And at this point, I got a little scared, I was like oh my God,
I’m actually gonna be suing New York City. I probably shouldn’t put my name on this. But I have to put my name
on this, but I’m gonna put on a posse, I have an instant posse. I created a website,
’cause that’s I can do. I created,
as you saw. And I filed with them,
even though there’s really no ‘there’ there, there’s a WordPress site. But they don’t care. And we filed against, not
the Municipal Archives, but their parent agency,
Department of Records and Information Services. Oh that’s the extra slides, sorry. And guess who won? We won a settlement. We were supposed to see
them on a Friday in court and Monday they called my
attorney and they said, ‘If we give her the
microfilms will she go away?’ [laughter] And they said yes. And they sent me copies of the microfilms. [applause] And this was very gratifying. But now I have a big box
of microfilms in my house. Like oh no, who do I talk to about this? Well I’ll tell you. So I cold called, by which I mean e-mailed, David Rencher at FamilySearch, who is the head of FamilySearch. I have no contact with
FamilySearch, I like my coffee. But I wrote to them and I
said, hi I’m filing a lawsuit and I’m about to get a lot of microfilms, do you want copies, is
what I originally said. Do you guys want copies
so that you can put them on your website? And put a copy in the
Granite Mountain Vault so for the first time
ever I know there’s a set somewhere other than that one
place in downtown New York. And he said, yes we would love copies and why don’t we scan
them for you for free and send you back the
microfilms and the scanned images on a portable hard drive? [laughter] And I’m like yes and they
have amazing professional grade microfilm scanners,
not even like the good stuff at the library, but
like the real pro stuff. So I forwarded the box to Salt Lake City and they sent it back to
me with a big portable hard drive with 80,000 images on them, all professionally done, beautiful. [applause] So thank you FamilySearch!
That was very generous of them, they didn’t need
to be doing any of this and that was very kind of them. Then I took the images
and I put them on the Internet Archive, It’s not,
which is something else, it’s not,
which is something else. And it’s not,
which is also something else. The Internet Archive is
basically a place where you can upload anything you want for free. They will host it for you for free. There are no bandwidth
bills, there’s no log-ins, there’s no pay wall. It’s not the most
beautiful site, honestly, for necessarily paging through
stuff, but it’s free and it’s pretty good. And they love hosting
stuff, they’re a library. I volunteer for them in
other capacities to save pages for the Wayback
Machine, things like that. So I put everything up there. And now it’s all up. So I actually don’t have a link here, I can probably open up real quick, to show you live. This is always exciting. and there are links to this, don’t worry, on our website. And I don’t know how good
the internet is here, I might have to switch back. And they’ll just let you
upload whatever you want. They host books, they host
music, they host playable versions of the Oregon Trail,
if you’ve ever played that. Right here, New York City
Marriage Index, then click here. They have everything, so let’s look at 1908 for Manhattan. So the way I got it,
there were 48 microfilms and then each microfilm
might have one or two different entries on it
by burrow and by year. And these are the indexes
and it’s loading very slowly, but it will load in here. If you click this little
search inside button, you can go through and
it’s all handwritten, and this is just exactly what they had, it’s exactly what I got. Brand new microfilms from the masters. So it’s slowly loading. Has the groom side and the bride, and we scroll down a little further. This covered 1908 through 1929. However, despite that
title, the little parts of Queens and Staten
Island actually extended a little past that year. So you can see by bride,
they would do it first by Manhattan 1908 and they
would do it by surname, you can zoom in. And they will tell you how to get that this is the index to
the three page documents I was showing you. Once you have this information,
there is information on the page here at to say, I found the name, now what? And it will say okay, you have a name, write down all this stuff. Send it to this address with a check and a self-addressed stamped envelope. Eight to 10 weeks you’ll get
back the three page document. So here you go. Now people are always asking me, is someone gonna index these? Yes I hope so. The people who are
working on it right now, or will start very shortly, is ItalianGen, the same people who were
working on the other one. I would love it if
FamilySearch and Ancestry, and MyHeritage, and
FindMyPast, and all of these great organizations wanted to
do an indexing program too, they’re welcome to do it. These images are in the public domain. There are no restrictions,
you don’t need to ask me. But that’s up to them
and I can’t make them. So even FamilySearch, who
has a copy of the images, wouldn’t even need to
start by downloading. I don’t know if they’re
gonna put them online. So for now, they’re just here. I hope honestly as I
keep winning more stuff, and I hope I keep winning more stuff, that people will feel
comfortable just understanding like yes there’s no strings attached. Just take it, take the data. So you can go back to the
actual main page here. And you scroll down, you’ll see all about New York City marriage records,
data usage, public domain. And here I found a name, now what? Got it? Okay moving on, ’cause
we have a lot to cover. Okay so that’s how we have a process now. Process is I find a record
set that no one else has, not even on FamilySearch microfilm. I don’t care about format,
I want something that nobody has and that’s important. I make a Freedom of Information
request and the proper law after first researching to
make sure can I actually get this, is this okay. And usually it is. I fight them until I get the records and then I put the records online. That’s kind of the process now
and now we have a pipeline. Okay, ripple effects from that one case, which was settled September of last year. A guy, who I never met before,
genealogist in New York, not Jewish, does Dutch and
English old New York research. He e-mails me out of the
blue, his name is Bob, and he says, hey I’m
researching Gravesend, like old Gravesend before it was part of Brooklyn. And I keep realizing that
the records I want are probably at the Municipal Archives. I never knew that
before, ’cause of course, the Municipal Archives
is a restaurant that doesn’t publish a menu. But he realized they must
have it, so without talking to me, he writes to
the e-mail of the people at the Municipal Archives and says, Hi, I hear you have Gravesend
records, they’re probably on microfilm — by the way, I
heard about Brooke Schreier Ganz winning her lawsuit against you. [laughter] And he’s getting copies
now for 35 dollars a film because they can’t lie
anymore and say this stuff isn’t under the
Freedom of Information Law. So he’s getting the stuff
and I told him, oh my God, I’m gonna help you put them
online as soon as you get them. It’s like that’s one
ripple effect, for one guy, with one specific narrow interest. I bet you all have interests
in various archives and libraries too. Next ripple effect, Phyllis
Kramer, some of you may know her, VP of Education at JewishGen. Not here today unfortunately, but she said I could talk about this. She loves voter records, I
didn’t really know anything about voter records. Some voter records in
New York City are kept by the Board of Elections. Some voter records are
kept by the department, by the Municipal Archives. She wrote both groups, Board of Elections and Municipal Archives, letters saying, I’m writing a Freedom
of Information request with Brooke Ganz and I’m going to ask you for copies of the voter
list for such and such year, such and such area. Board of Elections was great,
got back to her right away, she got everything she wanted. Municipal Archives is about
to hand over stuff to us, they’re giving us the list
of everybody registered to vote in the 1924 election in Manhattan. This stuff is public data. We just never thought
about it to ask them, instead of like begging,
you should tell them. So we have a sample record
that they’re working on. But the real ones, this is like the index, it’s the list of everyone
who was registered to vote in 1924. Women too, because this is 1924. This is a supplement page,
I think the real pages, I’m told, will also have
political party things, political party affiliations. And the reason this is
interesting is because, Jordan has a question,
tell me later, it’s okay. The reason this is
interesting is because this is basically like an index. It’s a list of everyone who was registered in New York City and that
time you had to re-register every year, not just when you moved. So therefore, this is the
index everyone is registered. You can then ask for a
specific person’s full one page form they filled out to prove
they’re registered to vote on which and this is
why Phyllis wanted it. They say, I became an
American citizen on this exact date in this exact court. And if you didn’t know that data, you get it in their voter registration, which they had to re-register every year. So if Phyllis and I get
from the Municipal Archives, the 1924 voter list, you
know that your ancestor was a naturalized citizen
by then and you can get their original sheet
in their handwriting that they had to fill out. So Phyllis is going
further and requesting the entire books, from two
different AD’s and ED’s, you know districts, that
cover the lower east side. Because to her that’s
like a snapshot Of Jewish life in 1924. They have to give you copies? Yes, they’re all in shrink wrap in the back of the Municipal Archives. You can’t look at them if you just visit, but you can if you FOIL them! More ripple effects, this
case I didn’t need to use the law at all, they just
heard about it and were nice, which is cool. [laughter] How am I on time? Let me just check. Okay, I’m good. New Jersey’s law is called OPRA, not to be confused with Oprah. New Jersey State Archives
in Trenton, I’ve never been, but I hear it’s wonderful
to visit and that they’re really helpful to genealogists. They have some records that
they have an index for. A lot of the records after
1904, they don’t even have their own index, a lot of the time. Like you have to sit
there and everything is alphabetical within that year. So they don’t have an index that I can get for a lot of years, unfortunately. I wish they would make one, they might. But they did have a couple
birth indexes, grooms index, bride indexes, 1901 to 1914. So I was getting ready
to send a records request to them and I got in touch
with the head archivist or someone who knew of me and knew them. He was just super nice on the phone. He was like, hey do you want copies? We’ll sell you copies, you
don’t need to file anything. I’m like no, no. It’s Joseph Klett, the head
of New Jersey State Archives and he was just nice. And so they made copies
for me and they sent it to my house and then
I did the same thing, where I sent them to
FamilySearch in Salt Lake City. They paid for the shipping too. And FamilySearch was
incredibly nice and they scanned all of the images
and they sent me back the actual microfilms and the hard drive. Same deal, it’s like kind of
turning into a funnel now. And so I’m putting these
all on the Internet Archive. Now a little secret, they’ve
gotten 98% online already, except for one year. I think I’m having problems with the film, we might need to rerun that one film. That’s why it hasn’t been announced yet. And they’re handwritten, most of them. The brides index was
often microfilms of an old dot matrix print out. And because it’s such high
resolution, you may be able to do a text search,
like unofficially on those. But most of them are handwritten. So these too, someone’s
gonna have to go through and do a laborious indexing job. And again, I wish
FamilySearch or Ancestry, or somebody would do them. But that’s up to them. And in the meantime,
ItalianGen’s like, sure, we’ll take those, it’ll take
four years, but we’ll do it. I’m like sure, okay. So this is my big news from
this week, or last week rather. After I got the New
York City marriage index from the Municipal Archives,
those ran through 1929. ‘Cause all the newer stuff
is still at the city clerk’s office ’cause that’s where
you go to get married. So I sent a FOIL request in
January to the New York City Clerk’s Office and said, hi
you have the New York City Marriage Index 1930 to
the present, I want it. And they didn’t respond. And then we sent more e-mails,
hey did you get my request? You’re supposed to respond
in an X number of days. They didn’t respond. Well I’ll get to how
we did it in a minute, but long story short, we won. They settled with us. This news just I was able to
finally announce it last week. We are signing the
papers this coming week, crossed fingers, my attorney says it’s fine to start talking about
it now, despite not having the final stipulation settlement signed, so, I’m going on faith that she is correct and they’re not gonna back out now. Again, they have been due
to see us in court many days and they just kept putting
it off, putting it off, and then we told them we’re
not gonna give you anymore time to put it off, like
just put up or shut up. If you have a reason
to tell us no, tell us. But you haven’t said why
you’re saying we can’t have it. You haven’t said there’s
some privacy rule. So therefore by default, they’re open. So I want a copy. So that’s fun. It’s about three million
records, never before open to the public, turns out
part of it’s in microfilm, part of it is in a text database. Which is great, ’cause we
don’t have to do an indexing project for those years. The microfilm part and the database part, they overlap for some
years which is great, we’ll have double coverage. So it’s the same sort of
microfilms we’ve saw before. Where they were handwritten index ledgers. Those microfilms, there’s 110
of them, run through 1972. But they also made their own
for internal use database, which we’re getting a copy of in a CSV, comma separated value, text document file. And that starts in 1950. So from 1950 to 1995, like
we’ll be able to search from day one as long
as we figure out a way to make a front end for that. The reason is, if you
tried to open that file in Excel it will crash Excel, I assume. So I wrote a recent
newsletter, Reclaim The Records has a newsletter, and I wrote
like the whole how we did it step by step if you want to learn more. Basically involved us
explaining to them many times their responsibilities under
the law, which is funny because their FOIL officer is the city, like one of the lawyers
for the city of New York, and they kind of blew us off every time until we actually took ’em
to court, that was fun. So again, snarky commentary
on our web feeds. We told them like flat
out what we were doing, this was not secret. We did everything through
MuckRock so our stuff was open to the world. We were not kidding
around, it’s their fault for not listening to us
and not following the law until they had no other recourse. And sometimes that’s what you have to do. Okay how are we doing on time? Okay, more things we’re
working on, this is not done yet but you can sort of
see what my life is like working on projects like this. On the Reclaim The Records
website we have a record survey where people just people just, you know, I ask them to write in. Do you know about a record
set that like you would love it if it was online, but
it’s not online anywhere and it’s not on microfilm. And can you tell us more about this. And someone wrote to me
saying it would be great to have the Missouri birth
index or death index, we don’t have either. Like how could you not have anything? But I checked it out one
day while I was sitting in my car waiting for a pizza to get made. I ordered it and I sat in
the car until it was ready. And I sat on my phone and
all I had to do was Google Missouri open records laws,
Missouri vital statistics laws. I don’t know anything about
Missouri, but this is how you learn and you can do
it for your state too. And I Googled Missouri
Vital Statistics and I found it in my car on my little
phone, and this is what I found. And if you zoom in, this
is basically saying most records in Missouri,
unless it’s a death record more than 50 years old,
then it’s open to everyone. But generally Missouri
records, you know, are closed for privacy reasons. Except number one in their
list of things that are open is a list of persons who are born or die on a particular date may
be disclosed upon request. So I thought, what if I
just request every date. [laughter] And I did. So they’re supposed to respond. I had to read about the
Missouri Sunshine Law. I knew nothing about the
Missouri Sunshine Law, but it’s not that different
from state to state, you just got to read it. They have helpful things
online, they have reporters online, there’s a big
journalism school in Missouri that publishes how to work with the law. And I saw that they’re supposed
to respond within three days, they didn’t respond
within three days. About three or four months
later they kind of pushed me off to somebody in
Department of Health. And they’re like, yeah
we got your request. That’s gonna be a lot of paper. I’m like, what are you talking about? It turns out Missouri, yes
they do know that they are allowed to give out this
index on a day by day, it’s just a surname,
given name, date of birth or date of death. I tried to ask for, can you add the sex, can you add the certificate number? No, they’ll just do exactly what the law requires them to do. But they’ve been selling
that data for years. They sell it to researchers,
they sell it to scientists, they sell it to epidemiologists. So people who want to know
who’s born in Missouri on a certain day, there’s
this cohort going on, they’ll tell you for a fee. I’m like, that can’t be right,
this says it should be open. Well it’s a fee because
we have to have the time to run the requests on our
really old mainframe and then they give to us and
we print it out on paper and then we scan the papers into a PDF and we send you the PDF. [laughter] I’m like no, no, no you don’t. ‘Cause I’m asking for
decades, I’m asking for over a 100 years, I’m asking
for the birth index 1910 to 2015 and the
death index, 1965 to 2015. Like you’re not gonna
waste that much paper, it’s gonna take forever. And they said, oh we do
this so that you know, for privacy reasons, so it doesn’t
like get online accidentally. I’m like, no I want it
online, you don’t understand. And I also knew, from reading
the Missouri Sunshine Law, that if they have it in
a format, you can request it in the same format. They’re telling me they
have it in a database, I want it in a database,
they have to do this. Give it to me on a USB
stick, that’s all I want. Don’t print it. And they kinda’ weren’t listening to me, and they weren’t responding,
I would call their office every week and they’d put me off. And eventually again, this is
where you see the difference in what the law says and
what you actually have to do. What I actually had to do
was find a Missouri Sunshine lawyer and I told him this story. And he’s like, sure I’ll help. And because he called,
they made a response. It wasn’t a good response,
but at least it was a response with an invoice, ’cause
they admitted I have the right to them, they
just didn’t say how much it would cost, but then they did. This was the e-mail I got from Missouri. Can you imagine what I
thought when I got this e-mail? Now I’m not on the hook
for this, this is just, they’re telling me what it
would cost if I got this. And honestly, they’re
doing it this way because they purposely misunderstand
that they’re gonna run every single day one by one. They’re going to do one for April first, one for April second, and so on. Which they’re listing at 23,376 hours just for the births, that
is if you work 24/7, 2.5 years. This is ridiculous, this
is insane, this is already open in the law, there
is no reason for this. Luckily, this is why you have an attorney. And our attorney wrote
’em some letters saying how can this be possible, by the way, don’t you know under Missouri law, if you have it in a
database, you have to give it in a database, you know,
this is established law. And by the way, Missouri’s
one of those states where they have fines if they mess up. And they know that
they’re breaking the law. And I think he sort of mentioned to them, you don’t want to get fined right? ‘Cause I’m telling you
this is an attorney, a well known Missouri
Sunshine Law attorney, right? He, by the way, is the
attorney who is dealing with the Missouri Sunshine Law case to the Missouri Supreme Court to ask about the materials being used in
lethal injections in Missouri. Which Missouri doesn’t wanna tell anyone where they’re sourcing the chemicals from, and he of course is saying, no the public has the right to know,
so he’s a well known guy. So yeah, and they’re like,
oh well you know here’s why we can’t do it. We can’t do it this way ’cause
we have an old mainframe. So we can’t do search
all birth dates from this date to this date, we can’t. We use SAS, it’s like
a really old language. And this is what they’re
telling this attorney. I’m like this is insane. Like seven years, everyday of my life. I mean I know it’s old fashioned. I know they have a very old mainframe, but still, they have to give it. And if they have to find someone
who’s not on their staff, who has the specialized ability to dump it to a USB key on a one time job, I will pay for that person’s hours. They’re entitled to charge
me, I’ll pay for it, I’m not asking something for nothing. So they tell me SAS just
can’t do a search like that. But they did tell me it was SAS. So I look online, I don’t
know anything about SAS, but I found their contact
us number and I found their tech support number. And I call them up and I didn’t tell them I did work for Missouri
Department of Health, but I didn’t tell ’em I didn’t work for Missouri Department of Health. [laughter] I said I was working with
the Missouri Department of Health database, and
could you do a search on multiple dates with like one search. Like search from this date to this date, export to a file, put it on a stick. And they’re like, of
course you can do that! Like how dare you, yeah I
know, it’s like a line of code. Like how dare you impugn
our database system, I know it’s wonderful. So we write back to the Missouri people and like no, no you can do this and we have proof that you can do this. Would you like the tech support number? Here it is. And that’s when they write
back to us and tell us this was a misunderstanding. So they finally write
back and they’re going to keep refining this, because at this point, they’re still doing one search per year. It’s like come on, you
can do one search for multiple years at once, I know you can. So they’re gonna keep
looking at this and get like a more reduced rate. Eventually they’ll get it
down to the actual cost, send an invoice, and hopefully
by end of this year 2016, we will get the Missouri
birth index and death index and put it online, and
they’ll never charge again. So that is my life these
days, it is working with the government or
against the government. New York State, New York
has an open data portal like many other places. This is New York and New
York for as bad as they are about not making things
available and being terrible to deal with,
they do have a small amount of data, genealogical data,
on their open data portal. And it is the 1957 through 1965 death index for New York State. Which is of course separate from the city, ’cause they’re separate
vital records jurisdictions, which they update quarterly. It’s like, guys, that’s
awesome, good for you! But like if you have everything 57 to 65, and you’re adding to
it as the year goes on, so this year it’ll be 66 I think. Like what about pre-1957? Now New York State does
publish that as open data, not as open data, as open records. Let me see if you can
realize how this is very similar to my New York City case. If you’re in New York
State and you want to look at the record, the death
index, for someone who died in 1930 or 50 in Yonkers
or somewhere like that, you can go to a small number
of New York state libraries, only the libraries, you go
in, they take like your phone and your pen and stuff. I haven’t actually don’t
this, but I hear about it and you microfiche, so
yes the records are open, but they’re only in a specific location, a couple specific locations in New York and they’re only in a really old format. I’m like oh my God, this is the same as my New York City case, all over again, it’s just the New York
State Department of Health owns these, I’m gonna request these. So that’s what I’m working
on now and we’ve been sort of stymied on various issues. Just to put it out there, like they were trying to get us to pay
for the actual costs of microfiche to microfiche transfer. But because I had asked
originally from microfiche to digital, which is a thing you can do, ’cause we have a machine that can do it, that’s a lot less expensive. So we’re sort of like, been hung up, and it’s been on pause while
we finish the other stuff. But we’re hoping by end of
the year, we get the rest of this death index, the older stuff. ‘Cause they kind of had
to admit, well if you’re already publishing this mid-century stuff, how can you withhold 1900 death index? And it’s shameful that
New York State does not have a death index, like
they don’t themselves, for their own use. You have to look up the
exact spelling of the name, which of course was transcribed and typed, you know, 50 years ago from
a handwritten certificate. This should all be out there. And it’s not just that
we’re the only one who ever thought of this,
everybody thought of this. FamilySearch, Ancestry,
all the big companies, not just genealogy, but
people who deal with like basically public
data for other reasons, insurance, things like that. They’ve all been after New
York for years and New York just says no, no, no, we
won’t do a deal, we won’t. No, no, it’s on microfiche, no. Or they just drag their
heels in other ways. And finally we kinda have
a hammer that will break through that wall, so we’re hoping by end of the year that we won’t
have to take them to court. We will if we have to,
but you know, this is what we’re doing, just to go. And we’re going after
the death index first because I figured, low hanging fruit, go for the stuff they’re
gonna have the least number of problems with. Dead people don’t have privacy rights. So getting a list of dead people’s names from 1880 to 1956 shouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t think it’d be as hard as it is, but once we get it, the
exact same rationale will give us access to the other records that are in those New
York State Libraries. Like the marriage index,
which we can get all the way to 2015. The birth index, which is
apparently like through the 30’s, but birth
indexes are really tricky. You don’t want to infringe
on people’s privacy, but it’s just the index, so they’re names and they’re already public records. It’s just not accessible public records. So that’s the kind of stuff I work on. I’m testing the waters on
access to educational records. Like school records,
like this will go down on your permanent record, there
really are permanent records. All around the country. And a lot of school districts
have records retention policies that say you
have to hold on to these for a hundred years. So I’m starting to test with
like little things to the New York City Department of
Education and other places. Hi, you have a record
for my great-grandmother, can I have a copy? She’s dead, so shouldn’t
be a problem right? So just I don’t what’s
gonna happen, but you have to try testing, I’m not
gonna like sit around and wait for them to do
it ’cause they’re not. So yeah this one was for
my great grandmother again. I purposely didn’t say she was dead ’cause I wanted to see if they would
realize she must be dead. [laughter]
I want to see how dumb they really can be. Like I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but you have to try somehow. I also made a FOIL request
to the New York City Department of Education,
not for a person’s records, but for a school’s records. But I found and read the
record retention schedule for the New York City
Department of Education and it says prior to like 1950 or so, every school has something
they call an All-School Census, which is like the directory. It’s every kid who was in the
school, what grade they were in and their class list,
their attendance list, their parents names, their home address, their grades, like all this sort of stuff. So some of its probably too intrusive. You can’t get their grades if
obviously they’re still alive. But parent lists, parent
names, are actually part of the directory legally. Now there is a federal law called FERPA, which would come into play
too, which protects you know, privacy rights around these records. But FERPA generally doesn’t
apply to dead people, or it’s not supposed to,
I don’t know if New York realizes that and FERPA
is not supposed to apply to basic directory listings. So I don’t know what’s gonna
happen, let’s find out. I’m still working on this. Maybe next year I’ll
have more information. Nice screenshot again of our website. So this is where you can
come in to start thinking about what records you want. It shouldn’t just be, oh you
did great stuff, good job getting those records, you
can get the same records. You could do the same
thing with whatever part of the country you care about. You just have to do a lot
of research, that’s all. And you know, don’t be
surprised if they try to do really ridiculous stuff. Just you know, just roll with it. We have a record survey on
our website where you can tell us about records that you know exist. Not like ones you wish
exist, but you know that they exist somewhere and you
just can’t get access to them. Like oh there’s a naturalization
book at the library, but people aren’t allowed
to look through it, only the librarian can look through it, so I can’t see the index,
so that’s a problem. Or oh there’s you know,
these old records of like employment records from the
city employment records, so public employment records
from like the 1920’s. Or oh there’s this, or why does this state not have anything? And we put them on our to-do list. We research everyone of them before we put it on the to-do list. We’re only putting things
up that we really think we would have a decent shot of getting. It’s not like we want to
do a scattershot approach. So we have like 63 items
on this list already, you can see what we’re gonna
eventually be working on. We’ll announce more all the time. Okay, getting to the end
here and I’m gonna take your questions very soon. So why do you do all this? Why do you like to beat
your head against the wall and fight the government,
fight city hall? Well it’s because you should
not be, as a researcher, you should not be
assuming that your records are going to be coming to you magically. They do not drop in the dead of night. The government, the agencies,
I do feel a little bad for them, honestly they
don’t have the budgets to do a lot of this stuff. They don’t have the budget
to put a lot of stuff online. They have to deal with the
government’s contractors if they ever wanted to
put something online and cost overruns. They are feeling like they need to justify their existence and by
holding onto the only copy of records it gives them power. And so they’re not necessarily
going to be proactive. So you can’t assume they’re
gonna do the right thing. They might, but they
probably won’t and they probably can’t even if they
are good people inside there. Same with the libraries. The for-profit genealogy
companies, I’m a member of all of these different
sites, I pay ridiculous fees every year, I think
there’s a place for them. But they have become
kind of the only venue to get new record sets online. By making often exclusive
deals with all these various city and state
governments — and that’s messed up. There’s no other way to put it. Now I understand that
it benefits both sides. They want to make a profit
and they’re a company, that’s what they are. And the libraries need
money, that’s what they do. So you know, it sort of
benefits all of them, but where does it benefit us? Does it benefit us if
everything’s behind a paywall for five year or ten years, or forever? No, even some of our favorite large and small non-profit
genealogy companies can’t often do this and the
reason is they have to be incredibly protective of
their name, their reputation. They don’t want anyone ever thinking, they came in here took our
records, and put them online. They’re gonna do this,
this, and this with them. Like they have to be super nice. And even if they are being
treated badly, which they often are by these archives. Like they are not gonna go be the bad cop. So if we are all the bad cop,
they can be the good cop. Which is fine by them and fine by me. And sometimes even
individual genealogists, sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. We’re always looking for our records. Our grandmother’s record,
where is my great grandfather? And we are so narrowly
focused we forget about the entire record set
that is there that could benefit everyone if we only
took a little more time to open it, not just
one record, but the set. So that is why there is no Records Fairy. You can be the Records
Fairy, if you want to be. Finally, I would tell you to use these Freedom of Information
laws because we can. Because we are lucky to have them. They’re an underused tool. And they are mostly free,
unless you run into terrible people, which you might. Maybe I was just unlucky,
but maybe you’ll be luckier. Maybe you’ll find someone
who realizes they have to open the law and they’ll let records under the law and they’ll work with you. So we have these laws, no
one else is going to be using them except for individuals. So individuals should
use these laws because look what you can do for
a little bit of money, you can get everything
open to you forever. God bless America. Thank you. [applause] Okay, questions?

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