Our first newsletter — and our first win!
Welcome to the inaugural newsletter from Reclaim The Records. We're a not-for-profit group of genealogists, historians, researchers, and open government advocates who are filing state Freedom of Information law requests to get public data released back into the public domain. We're so glad you signed up to follow all the latest news about our wacky little quest.
And we're going to start off this first newsletter with some exciting news: Reclaim The Records has won its first legal case, winning access to over 600,000 never-before-public genealogical records!
We can now announce that our petition against the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS), parent organization of the New York City Municipal Archives, has been settled in our favor. We had originally filed a New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the Archives back in January, seeking copies of an important historical record set that was only available onsite in lower Manhattan. The Archives had at first accepted, then suddenly rejected our FOIL request, and then denied our appeal. Our last remaining option was to take them to court — and we did! To read more background on this case, and the importance of these records, check out this article from Avotaynu Online.
DORIS was due to respond to our case in court in Manhattan on Friday, September 25th, but they cried uncle and went to our attorneys to settle on Monday, September 21st. We don't have an exact date yet when our hard-won 48 microfilm copies will arrive in California, but it should be relatively soon. Scanning the films and uploading the digital images for free public access will happen shortly thereafter.
We're now pursuing the City for the recovery of our attorneys' fees, which is allowed under the New York State's FOIL in cases where a state government agency had no legal basis to deny a legitimate records request. We should hear the results of that pursuit sometime in the next two months or so.
This case represents, we think, the very first time that a genealogist has used any state's Freedom of Information law to reclaim genealogical and archival records held by a state or local archive or library. And we hope it won't be the last!
People we'd like to thank:
So, what's next for Reclaim The Records?
We're looking forward to finishing up the last remaining items from this FOIL request: scanning the microfilms, uploading the digital images, publicizing their availability, making copies of the microfilms available to any organization or individual who might want them, and eventually donating our own microfilm copies to the New York Public Library's 42nd Street branch.
We very much hope that some organization out there will then take these newly-released images and start an indexing and transcription project of the 600,000+ names contained within them, so that the world may someday have a first-ever searchable database of their contents...hint, hint.
And after that? Well, we're going to charge ahead with three to five brand new FOIL requests, filed in or before January 2016.
One of those requests will definitely include the 1938-present New York City marriage index, which has never before been available to the public in any form. That request will be directed towards the New York City Clerk's office; their FOIL officer is also their attorney. We might choose to break that request up into two requests, one for the 1938-1965 data and one for 1966-present. That's because we anticipate that the City Clerk's office may try to claim that basic marriage indices, like marriage certificates, are not public documents if they are less than fifty years old. We think that's wrong and we're pretty sure we have the law on our side — three cheers for Gannett Co., Inc. v. City Clerk's Office, City of Rochester, Supreme Court, Monroe County, 1993 — but splitting up the request would at least avoid having the earlier indices' data release held up while we battle it out for the later data.
At least two other requests will likely go forward for very early twentieth century vital records, one to the New York State Department of Health and one to the New Jersey State Archives, the latter of which will be our first OPRA request, which is New Jersey's version of FOIL. We've already started discussions with genealogists and archivists who have a lot of experience dealing with these records, and their access challenges, to identify the best potential test cases for these agencies.
We're also looking at having our attorneys start inquiries as to why the New York City Department of Health has failed to deliver several years of public records to the NYC Municipal Archives, including the 1910-1914 NYC birth certificates, which are now more than 100 years old and clearly should already be open to the public.
Future issues of this newsletter will have more details; stay tuned!
Here's how you can help
Spread the word about Reclaim The Records! Follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook, and feel free to forward this newsletter to your friends and genealogical societies. If you're part of a group that deals with genealogy, archives, libraries, open data, or open government, please get in touch with us so we can work on future records access strategies.
Do you know about any genealogical record sets that are being unfairly or illegally withheld from the public? Take our Records Survey and let us know about them!
A final thank you
Reclaim The Records would like to remember the late Pamela Weisberger: a friend, mentor, mensch, and brilliant genealogist who left us far too soon. Pamela was a strong voice in the fight for records access, particularly including an as-yet-unfinished push to regain access to twentieth century Ukrainian-Jewish community records books that wound up locked away in archives in Warsaw, Poland. This issue of the newsletter is dedicated to her memory.