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.

4 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.

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