Reclaim the Records: Getting Access to Public Records

Most archivists and government clerks are quite helpful in maintaining public records and giving us access. However, there are some instances where the records custodian isn't fulfilling records requests as required by law. That's why there's a group called Reclaim the Records. 

Getting Access to Public Records - Reclaim the Records

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What Is Reclaim the Records?

Reclaim the Records is an organization founded by Brooke Schreier Ganz in 2015. Its mission is to get public records actually available to the public and does so using state-level freedom of information laws. 

After Reclaim the Records wins their case, they make the copies available on Internet Archive and FamilySearch (for free!) That means that all of us win when they win!

In this video, I asked Brooke why she started Reclaim the Records and how she approaches records offices that aren't following the open records laws in their state. Her strategies can be used by others to get public records unlocked.

Some of Reclaim the Records' Successes:

These cases have already been decided in Reclaim the Records' favor and are now available online on Internet Archive and/or FamilySearch:

Key Takeaways:

  • State-level freedom of information laws vary by state.
  • Records obtained through these requests are not obtained for free; researchers need to pay for them. (For example, Brooke had to pay $35/roll for the microfilm that she obtained from her first request out of New York City.)
  • If you're going to make a freedom of information request to a state agency, know the law.
  • Become familiar with the process for making a request; these processes vary by state.
  • When you make a request, mention that you are an individual (or non-profit organization, if applicable) and that you are willing to pay for the copies of the records you are requesting. 
  • Be specific with your records request (specific collection and years) and tell them where you know there is already a copy. 

Find Reclaim the Records:

You can find Reclaim the Records on their website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Let them know if there are public records that a records custodian is denying access to. 

There are times when records that are supposed to be public are being restricted by the office that holds them. Learn about Reclaim the Records, an organization fighting for #openrecords access, a cause of vital importance to #genealogy and #familyhistory.

8 thoughts on “Reclaim the Records: Getting Access to Public Records

  1. In 2003, I visited a county in Pennsylvania where a number of my ancestors had lived. I asked to see the probate file for my 4th great grandfather. One of the court clerk’s deputies said that file fell into a group of probates not available because they were frail (1831). I said I understood that but I thought that these were public records. She took the file and made the requested copies. I only knew to confront her because of the occupation that I had back home. I suggested to her that she could make two copies of the document and leave one in the file in order not to handle the original. Sadly, she didn’t do that.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this interview! We all need to know our rights and how to assert them. Arming yourself with information is the best way to fight any battle. Sincere thanks to both you ladies for seeing to it that all “seekers” are appropriately armed.

  3. Fascinating how she accomplished this! I do alot of research in NY state and have used these indexes. (Used to drive from Chicago to Buffalo to see the indexes on microfische.) Now see it on line in the comfort of my home, thanks to Brooke, her vision and wonderful organization.

  4. Colbert County Alabama–Most of the early records have been destroyed because they were maintained at the courthouse and never milcofilmed put into storage where we have been told it rained on them. They still have the records were people were sent to Bryce Hospital. I ask to look at them and been denied. I have ask them to look for the one name for me and have been denied. Only good news is that they do say they still have them. Nothing is on microfilm or I would buy it and go to a place that had a reader and look at the records and when I finished my research donate it to a achive.

    • Regina, they cannot legally refuse, but Alabama has one of the worst grades in the country on open records compliance. My advice (and this comes from working for county government in TN) is put your request in writing and make them respond in writing. Here’s a sample AL FOIA request from the National Freedom of Information Center’s website:
      [Your Name]
      [Street Address]
      [City, ST ZIP Code]

      [Date]

      [Name of Custodian of Records]
      [Title]
      [Company Name]
      [Street Address]
      [City, ST ZIP Code]

      Dear [custodian of records]:

      Under the Alabama Open Records Law § 36-12-40 et seq., I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of public records that [Describe the records or information sought with enough detail for the public agency to respond. Be as specific as your knowledge of the available records will allow. But it is more important to describe the information you are seeking.]

      If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $______. However, I would also like to request a waiver of all fees in that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of ___________ [Here, you can identify yourself as a genealogist and state that your request is related to historic preservation purposes.] This information is not being sought for commercial purposes.

      The statute requires a response in a reasonable time period. If access to the records I am requesting will take longer, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.

      If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.

      Thank you for considering my request.

      Sincerely,

      [Your Name]

      [Your e-mail address]

      I made a couple of changes to what the website had: I took out references to news media and substituted genealogy instead, and I exchanged email address for phone number at the bottom. The reason for that is you don’t want them to be able to call you, the goal is to get them to put it in writing so you can prove it.

      IF they don’t respond, send a second letter, but copy the AL Attorney General on your letter, and make sure you add that it is the second request and the AG is being copied for enforcement purposes.

      If they deny, and don’t give a reason and/or avenue for appeal as requested, keep the original but make a copy and file a written complaint with the AG. Cc the person who denied you, as well as the head of county government and/or the elected official to whom that person reports. (Example: if it’s a deputy clerk, copy the elected court clerk.)

      If you really want to put gravy on the biscuit, print out a copy of the law and enclose it with the request and any follow-up correspondence. It may take more than one attempt, but once they realize that you know what you’re talking about and you won’t take no for an answer, they might just give it to you so you’ll leave them alone.

      The only other things I would suggest is go to the County Commission meeting and ask to address them. (Not sure how it works in Colbert, but where I live, both the City and County governing bodies allow citizens a short opportunity to speak at the meetings, even on non-agenda matters.) If that isn’t allowed, write a letter to the Commissioners explaining how the (whoever) is violating the law and asking–politely!– what they’re going to do to correct this problem. If you can get the local news agency (paper, TV, etc.) involved, so much better. Nobody loves open records better than the news media.

      This is definitely a situation where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Good luck!

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