"Public data for public use"
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Our eleventh newsletter:
The New York City marriage index
for 1950-1995 is now ONLINE!


Stipulation and legal agreementIn our previous newsletter, Reclaim The Records announced that we had won our months-long legal battle with the New York City Clerk's Office, under the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), for the right to acquire and publish the first-ever public version of the New York City marriage index.

A few weeks later, we were excited to announce on our Facebook page that not only had we won the records, we had also been awarded attorneys fees in our legal settlement! It turns out the City Clerk's Office really didn't have any good reason for denying our perfectly legitimate records request, or for ducking our attorney's phone calls and e-mails, or for generally refusing to hand over the data. And as is the case in 47 states, New York's Freedom of Information Law specifically allows for attorneys fees to be awarded in cases like this, to punish government agencies who don't follow the law and who withhold documents from the public.

A few days later, we were even more excited to announce that the records had been safely shipped to us in California, completing the terms of the legal settlement. And here they are:

Photo of the microfilms we won

As you might remember, the data we won in the settlement is in two different formats and parts, covering slightly overlapping years. We won 110 reels of microfilm -- brand new copies, made from the masters in the City Clerk's Office's vault -- covering the handwritten marriage license index for 1930-1972. And we also won a copy of a text-searchable database that the City Clerk's Office had created for their own in-house use, covering 1950-1995.

Yesterday, we shipped the two big banker boxes of 110 microfilms to Salt Lake City, where the non-profit organization FamilySearch has once again generously agreed to scan all the images for us for free on their professional-grade equipment. They'll put a copy in the Granite Mountain Vault, and hopefully put a copy of the images on their website someday (but that's entirely up to them). And in about three months, they'll send us back all the microfilms, along with a new portable hard drive filled with the newly-created digital images from these films.

We think these 110 films might yield about 200,000 images, maybe more. And over the course of a few months, probably starting in January 2017, they'll all get uploaded to the Internet Archive for free public use, without any copyrights or usage agreements. Yes, people will be welcome to make a transcription project for them, if they'd like, or even repost the images wherever they want. Public domain, baby!

And as for the USB stick we received from the City Clerk's Office with their internal-use database for the 1950-1995 licenses, it finally showed up in the mail, along with a very wrinkled letter:

Letter and USB drive

It turns out the City Clerk's Office had sent the data to us in XLS (Microsoft Excel) spreadsheet format, rather than a nice CSV file as they had promised, so we spent all of last week figuring out the file structure. We ended up creating some alternate cleaned-up CSV copies of the data, and we even made a SQL version, ready for import into your favorite database. And we were about to post those online and call it a day, but...

But then we thought, you know, most people are not going to want to sit around trying to scroll through huge CSV files of names.

So, in addition to the new data files, we also made a new website.


Introducing...the NYC Marriage Index!

The NYC Marriage Index

That's right, you can now search through the index to New York City marriage licenses for 1950-1995, for free! Our search engine even recognizes soundalike surnames, spelling variants, wildcards (with no minimum number of letters needed), common nicknames, year ranges, borough preferences, and more.

Or you can download all the raw data files in XLS, CSV, or SQL format, and do whatever you want with them -- also free! We hope that some major genealogy companies and organizations will also add this new data to their websites, but as usual, that's entirely up to them.

The links to all the new files are right there on that website, so please feel free to grab them and add them to your own genealogy collections, if you'd like. No strings attached!

The final count of the marriage licenses in this data set: 3,124,595 licenses, which means a little over six million people. You might even see a few famous names in there.

Now, this database we got from the City Clerk's Office isn't perfect:

  • There are several obvious misspellings of common given names, like "Rchard" for "Richard", etc. There are also many names with obviously transposed letters.
  • Some surnames, compound surnames, and hyphenated surnames have inconsistent spacing and punctuation in them. For example, people whose surname was "McMann" or other names starting with "Mc" may have had their names listed in the database as "Mc Mann" (with a space after the "Mc").
  • Most middle names were either not recorded at all, or were recorded as part of the given name.
  • There are at least 28,000 to 30,000 missing records for Manhattan for 1967 alone. Those records do exist at the City Clerk's Office on paper, but for some reason they are not listed in this database. We'll probably discover other small batches of missing records as we continue to explore all this new information.
  • This means that for the handful of years where there exists both the microfilm of the original images and the database, people might want to check out and compare both sources, just in case.

All that being said, we think you'll agree that it's nice to finally have this information available to the public.

And we're not stopping here. We'll be following up this successful public records request with two more requests in early 2017, asking for the 1996-2016 continuation of this NYC marriage license index data, as well as the 1988-2016 NYC domestic partnership database. Hopefully it will be a lot easier to get that new data without a protracted legal fight, now that City Clerk's Office knows who we are and knows that we're committed to making them hand over the data to the public -- and perhaps even pay our attorneys fees, if need be. 😉

Enjoy the new site, and all the downloadable data files, and happy searching!

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