Genealogy Groups & Community Members Unite to Preserve Access to Records

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - 4:00pm

On October 24, members of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society joined dozens of others from the genealogy community to combat an unacceptable proposal that would greatly restrict access to New York City vital records. 

If accepted, the proposal would prevent birth records from becoming publicly accessible until 125 years after their creation, and death records wouldn't be available for 75 years after they were made.

Read on for a wrap-up of the hearing, including some of the organizations that were there, and some of the arguments made against the proposal - now we await the decision from New York City. 

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Thanks to all who took action

As many of you know, over the last several weeks the NYG&B has been trying to raise awareness about this issue, and encourage the genealogy community to share their opinions with the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. 

We were truly amazed at how many people joined in the effort to keep these essential records open to researchers, and anyone who participated in any way has our deep gratitude. 

A great showing at the October 24 hearing! 

Over the past month, we had over 3,880 people sign our official public comment, which was delivered yesterday afternoon. We had signatures from all 50 U.S. States, and many other countries around the globe - the PDF document was 325 pages long! 

We have also had many of our members send in their own public comment on the matter, either via email or written letter. In the end, over 350 people sent in their own form of comment or letter. 

Finally, we owe special thanks to the 60+ people who attended the hearing yesterday - over two and a half hours, members from the New York City government listened to comment after comment in opposition to this proposal. Not a single person commented in favor of it! 

This was a truly global effort, and we know that many people who wished they could attend the hearing were unable to because of distance - so for those of you who weren't able to be there, read on for a quick wrap-up of the many groups that were represented at the hearing, and a few of the fantastic arguments presented. 


Genealogy advocates

There were many individual family history researchers and professional genealogists there independently at this hearing. Genealogy organizations were there as well and submitted comments via individual or multiple representatives. Here are some of the organizations that were represented: 

A portion of the group who attended the hearing 
poses for a picture.

It was inspiring to see so many different organizations in the community come together in support of reasonable access to historical documents. 


NYG&B President D. Joshua Taylor led off the
comments at the hearing. 

Arguments against the proposal

There were so many good arguments that we couldn't possibly summarize all of them - here are a few of the recurring points that were made by those who spoke (note: we were told that the official transcript would soon be available on the proposal's web page):

The tragic loss of family history: One of the most often stated arguments conveyed how critical and essential these records are to those attempting to trace their family history for any reason. By restricting access to these records, the City would be restricting people from accessing their family's past and discovering their own personal history. Considering New York City's history as an immigration hub, this proposal would be especially damaging to first or second generation Americans attempting to learn about their immigrant origins. 

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Negative impact on public health: Many pointed out that, ironically, this Department of Health and Mental Hygiene rule would actually negatively impact public health - the U.S. Surgeon General and many other official health organizations recommend that everyone investigate their family medical history to be more aware of genetic predisposition to fatal diseases. Many shared their own heart-wrenching stories of inherited illness, which would only be made more difficult to combat if this rule were to be enacted. 

Adoptees: Many of those who commented also pointed out the devastating impact this would have on adoptees looking into their family history and biological parents. Birth certificates are absolutely essential documents to the many children who have been adopted, and this law would make it very difficult to obtain these documents. It would unfairly prevent the discovery of important, potentially life-altering information for this often-overlooked segment of the population.

The reality of identity theft: Another point that was reiterated in many reasonable arguments against the proposal was that this new rule would do little to prevent identity theft - in fact, it may even make it harder to catch identity theft when it's happening. These days, most identity theft occurs through hacks, data leaks and other cases of information theft on a large, and usually technologically sophisticated scale. Many pointed out that the idea of an identity thief going down to the New York City Municipal Archives and pulling birth certificates one at a time is ludicrous. Furthermore, all of the information available on these documents is easy for identity thieves to obtain elsewhere - some of it is already publicly available! Finally, by closing off death certificates from the public, it prevents credit agencies and others from checking to see if a person really is who they say they are. 

This chart shows that there is little statistical proof that open records laws
correlate with an increase in identity theft rate. For a bigger chart, click here
For the full dataset - created by Alex Calzareth and Alec Ferretti - click here

Vital record laws: Several representatives from Reclaim the Records laid out very original arguments drawn from data they compiled on rates of identity theft across different states in the U.S. - their data shows no significant correlation between identity theft and vital records access laws - overall, states with more open laws did not show a significantly higher level of identity theft. For more information on the data and their statistical conclusions, you can visit the dataset created by Alec Ferretti and Alex Calzareth on GitHub. Representatives of Reclaim the Records also highlighted details on the "Model Vital Statistics Act" from which the time-tables in the rule are supposedly drawn. While this act sounds very official, they pointed out that it wasn't created with input from the genealogy community, hasn't even been implemented at the federal level, and hasn't been used by many state or local bodies at all. 


What happens next?

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will review all of the submitted comments and comments from the hearing, and come to a determination. We are confident that the community has created a very compelling case for rejecting this proposal, and have no doubt that the sheer number of people who voiced their opinions through public comments will also have an impact. 

It may take a while for the decision to come through, but we will definitely let you know when it does. Click here to subscribe to the NYG&B eNews to stay up to date on this issue, and receive news and tips about New York Genealogy twice a month. Once again, thank you to all who joined in to fight this proposal! 


About the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society

The NYG&B's Publications have won back-to-back Awards 
of Excellence from the National Genealogical Society 
in 2016 and 2017.

Since 1869, the NYG&B's mission has been to help our thousands of worldwide members discover their family's New York story, and there has never been a better time to join.

The cost of an Individual Annual Membership is less than six dollars a month, and includes the following benefits: 

  • Access to nearly 50 exclusive digital record sets covering the entire state of New York, including the fully searchable archives of the Record
  • A complimentary subscription to all of Findmypast's North American records, as well as U.K. and Irish Census records.
  • Access to hundreds of expert-authored Knowledge Base articles and webinars to help you navigate the tricky New York research landscape. 
  • Exclusive discounts and advanced access to conferences, seminars, workshops and lectures to learn more about researching people and places across New York State. 

To learn more or join us, please visit our member benefits page


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Like many researchers I have deep roots in New York State and New York City, Brooklyn and counties all across the state. With major family roots reaching back into the 1600's. What a shame that this issue would even be approached by this board. I truly doubt they could come up with one valid reason why they should enact this issue and it's fairly obvious that none of the do their own families searches or they would feel the way the majority of us do who are from the New York area. I am encouraged by the shear numbers who replied and would hope that coupled with the members present at the meeting and the personal responses will have a most positive effect.
I appreciate any and all you can do to make these vital records available to us again. Thank you for your efforts!
I'm sorry the Association of Public Historians of NYS were not represented there!
Great to see this update. Well done Josh and team and looking forward to a positive outcome.
Please keep me posted about the decision regarding obtaining vital records of my ancestors. You ask: "Are you overlooking these free digital records on Family Search?".... Is that another website?