PA Vital Records – Your Help is Needed


[Editor’s Note: we received this request for assistance from fellow genealogist Michael McCormick who is involved with the PaHR-Access organization]

Help is needed in promoting legislation for better vital records access. People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access (aka PaHR-Access) is an organization of people like you taking an active role in promoting access to Pennsylvania’s records. Since it was founded in 2007 by spokesman Tim Gruber the focus has been to make death certificates 50+ years old public record.

This month begins the new 2011-2012 legislative session for Pennsylvania. Right before the end of the 2009-2010 session the vital records bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate committee on Public Health & Welfare. It was well on its way to being voted on by the Senate. In the previous 3 years PaHR-Access has significantly increased awareness of the vital records access issue. As of this writing 464 organizations have officially endorsed PaHR-Access by sending letters to the appropriate legislators. Many of these organizations are Historical Societies.

Senator Robert D. Robbins of the Pennsylvania Senate is preparing to reintroduce his vital records bill. Before that happens Senator Robbins will gather cosponsors for this bill from among his fellow Senators. 15 Pennsylvania Senators are now cosponsors. Next the bill we be assigned a number (last session it was SB 683). The bill will then work its way back through the committees and the usual legislative process. Your help is requested to impress upon legislators the importance and urgency of this issue.

The current situation in Pennsylvania is much worse than most other states for vital records access. Because the records are not legally considered “public” they can not be put online via images or index. Only Pennsylvania Department of Health employees are permitted to search the records. Genealogical requests will not be expedited according to the website and are only accepted by mail. The expected wait time is listed as 4 months. Genealogists can not order a certificate for a client unless a letter is attached expressly stating the client’s wish for the genealogist to do so. Make sure you send everything properly in your request or you will not only fail to receive the certificate, you will be out of the $9 to $34 you sent for the search. Besides all this you will not likely know it until 4 months later.

The bill being proposed will make death certificates over 50 years old and birth certificates over 100 years old public record. It also requires that these certificates be moved to the Pennsylvania State Archives. Many of you will know from experience the difference between working with an archive and a health department. Moving the records to the archive will remove a significant burden off of the Pennsylvania Department of Health in processing genealogical requests they are clearly not able to expedite. Making them public will mean that a public index could be made. They could eventually be put online. The options we genealogists are used to for accessing vital records would come into reach.

The support of genealogists everywhere is needed.

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©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Open Thread Thursday: The Content Wars

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Some readers may or may not know, that in my business – High-Definition Genealogy – one of the services I offer is market research within the genealogy industry. I follow the trends and issues, look at figures such as website traffic, demographics, etc. I attend conferences, meet with management of genealogy vendors both large and small, and generally try to have my “ear to the rail” so to speak.

One issue that has become more noticeable is The Content Wars or as some call it, The Content Race.  Namely, the practice of acquiring access to holdings of research information – both public domain and proprietary – and then digitizing them for use by genealogists and others.

I will have more to say on this topic later this week and into next, and I don’t want to share my thoughts and insights just yet.  I’d like input on this topic just from a reader standpoint without the influence of my written word.

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For our Open Thread Thursday, please comment on these issues:

  • Once a collection of documents is digitized and indexed, should they be made available to researchers for free or for fee? This means they would either follow the FamilySearch (free) or the Ancestry (fee) models. Note: there are many other vendors and providers both free and fee – I am only using the most recognizable vendors as examples.
  • Does it matter if the documents themselves are in the public domain when it comes to charging a fee for access? Does a good index and search mechanism add value to the record set, to the point of justifying a fee for access?
  • Think about the holdings that genealogical or historical societies have.  Should they place access behind a members-only website, even if the documents are in the public domain? What about making the index free but the images members-only?
  • Let’s say that 20 years from now, most records of use to genealogists are digitized and accessible – either free or fee. What will genealogy vendors need to offer consumers to keep them engaged in genealogy? What will genealogical societies need to do to survive if their public domain holdings are made available for free?

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Unclaimed Persons Solves 100th Case

Congratulations to Unclaimed Persons and all of its hard-working volunteers on solving their 100th case!

In case you are unfamiliar with Unclaimed Persons, this volunteer organization is comprised of genealogists, family historians and cyber-sleuths who use their research skills to help coroners and medical examiners located next of kin for unclaimed persons.

I highly recommend that if you have a some time or are looking for a volunteer project that you can do from the comfort of your own home, consider becoming a member.  Not only will you be assisting overburdened state and local agencies but you’ll also hone and sharpen your research skills.

Click here for more information on becoming a volunteer (this link will take you to a Facebook group page).

Congratulations to everyone at Unclaimed Persons!

© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee