Reclaim The Records: Using Freedom of Information laws to open up genealogical and archival data

Reclaim The Records is an activist group of genealogists, historians, researchers, and open government advocates. We are collecting information about archivally important data sets that are not available online or on microfilm, and we then use state and Federal FOI laws and Open Data initiatives to get that information released back to the public.

Our pilot project, a New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request against the New York City Municipal Archives, was filed in January 2015. In September 2015, after months of fruitless FOIL-wrangling, we filed a lawsuit against them in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and won a full settlement from the Archives for the data we sought: the first-ever publication of the 1908-1929 New York City marriage index. We were able to prove that state FOIL laws do indeed apply to the old records in state and municipal archives and libraries, and that these laws could be a useful tool to regaining public access to crucial research materials which had been mostly inaccessible to genealogists and historians.

In the six months since that initial FOIL case wrapped up, we’ve acquired and published millions of records that had never been widely available before. In May 2016 we filed a FOIL lawsuit against the New York City Clerk’s Office for access to the 1930-2015 New York City marriage index. We have many other pending state FOI requests in three different vital records jurisdictions, and many more to come. We’re primarily focused on regaining access to vital records (births, marriages, deaths), but we’re also looking into using state FOIL to regain access to educational records, public cemetery data, old naturalization books, and much more.

We digitally scan and then publish all the records we receive to the Internet Archive, making them available as free public domain data, as they always should have been. Our goal is to get these records put online, for free, for everyone.

Want to learn more? Check out our website at ReclaimTheRecords.org and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to keep updated. Or you can follow us on Twitter at @ReclaimTheRecs or Like us on Facebook.

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