Call to Action: Pennsylvania Historical Record Access

Today, 5 June 2011, Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL, a professional genealogist in the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, posted the following message on several forums, including several genealogy mailing lists and social media sites:

I just received the following this morning:

“Vital Records Bill SB-361 is scheduled for an important vote in State Senate Public Health & Welfare Committee on Wednesday June 8th, 2011 at 10am in Room 461 of the State Capitol Building in Harrisburg (I only just found out about it). More can be found on this at the June 1, 2011 entry on our website under The Latest News: http://users.rcn.com/timarg/PaHR-Access.htm.

This bill just makes birth certificates over 100 years old and death certificates over 50 years old open records. It doesn’t force them to be online, but making them open records is required before anything at all can be done. It is basically the same bill that passed this committee unanimously last year in the previous session. However, we cannot assume it will do so again. Your help is needed to make sure it passes again. Please visit, call, or at the very least email any or all of the committee members and ask them to vote in favor of this bill. If your state senator is on the committee so much the better. Be sure to let him or her know you are a constituent.

Please let your membership know about this. Thank you for your help.

Tim Gruber

610-791-9294”

If anyone can lend their support, please feel free to do so. The website Tim mentions is of the organization whose sole purpose is to get the PA Vital records opened up for easier access. It has information on why we need to do this, and who to contact.

Pennsylvania is one of only a few (less than ten) states that have refused to open their vital records to researchers, regardless of the age of the record. The state began their current vital registration program, for births and deaths, in 1906. All of these records, including those for people who died in 1906, are not considered public records by the state. This means that (1) there is no publicly available index to births or deaths within the state, from 1906 to the present; (2) researchers have absolutely no access to search any birth or death records, from 1906 to the present; and (3) researchers must provide detailed information on the deceased, including a specific familial relationship, in order to obtain a death certificate. And of course there are other implications for genealogists, as well.

Compare this policy with some of Pennsylvania’s neighbors. In the state of Maryland, birth certificates become publicly available after 100 years, and death certificates become publicly available after 10 years. Birth indexes are available for viewing on microfilm at the Maryland State Archives even for the period during which the certificate is restricted (for births less than 100 years old). Death indexes are available online from 1875 through 1972 for Baltimore City, and from 1898 through 1968 for the rest of the state. In the District of Columbia, the seat of our federal government, birth certificates are restricted for 100 years, and death certificates are restricted for 50 years.

The open-access advocacy group quoted above only requests open access to death certificates older than 50 years as a start, the same as has been available in the District of Columbia (not to mention most other states) for many years.

For more information please visit the website for the People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access (PaHR-Access). This website discusses the issues in great depth, and includes a list of “Ways You Can Help,” sample letters, and other useful information.

If you live or have research interests in Pennsylvania, please get involved. As mentioned, there is a hearing scheduled for this Wednesday, 8 June 2011, in Harrisburg. Please contact the members of the State Senate Public Health & Welfare Committee immediately. We must make our voices heard, so that this bill will pass.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Elissa Scalise Powell on June 5, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Michael, Thanks for adding your thoughts to this important issue. This is important legislation especially when I heard just yesterday of a woman’s denial to get her mother’s birth certificate because the subject’s name was spelled Carry on the birth record and the request was for Carrie (same birth date, same parents, etc.) Now that is what open records would really achieve – less work for overworked Dept. of Health clerks when people can self-serve through a publicly accessible index and then order the correct record. Or better yet be able to see the scanned image of an original antique record for themselves (as Ohio does).

    Reply

    • Thank you for letting us all know about these issues. I hope that Pennsylvania will come to realize “the error of their ways” and open records access, at least partially.

      Reply

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