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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Cost of Public Records

The cost of birth, death and marriage records has gotten completely out of hand.  Having working in public entities most of my adult life, and having attended town counsel and city department head meetings more times than necessary to my job function, I can tell you that these prices have nothing, whatsoever, to do with the actual costs of providing them.

When I began sending for birth, death and marriage records, for my family history research, decades ago, most of them were $8.00 and were actual photocopies of the document.  At some point, the State of New York doubled that fee and what I received was an "official" transcription.

So, here's the deal.  The records are all there.  In some places, they've been indexed, in others they have not.  Indexing would facilitate retrieving specific records.

Here's what the process might be (a fantasy):

I fill out a form requesting a document (a death certificate, for instance).  The law is that these documents are private and unavailable for 70-75 years.  

I mail the request form with the fee to the Town or County Clerk, or State Archives.

If I know the exact date of death and have so provided it on the form and, if the records at that office are indexed, how long do we imagine it would take to retrieve the document?  Many are in ledgers and may be in a storage facility in which case someone has to go to that facility which is, hopefully, organized, and bring the ledger or box back to the main office for photocopying or transcription.

If the document is in a ledger, it is probably not removable for easy photocopying.  It is also unlikely that the Clerk's office (except perhaps the State Archives) has a photocopier intended to easily photocopy large books.  Perhaps moving from photocopying to transcription was done to prevent damaging ledgers.

If, however, the certificate is in a box of like certificates, photocopying would be easy and would take all of less than 5 minutes.

So, imagine how long it takes to transcribe a death certificate.  Transcription would be facilitated if the office has recognized the frequency of such requests and has designed a transcription form including all possible information from past documents.  Or, at least, the most pertinent information:  full name, date and place of birth, date and place of death, age at death, place of residence before death, full name of spouse, full name of father and mother, date and place of interment, full name of person providing data.  Looking at my maternal grandmother's death certificate, with or without a form, I'm guessing it would take me about 20 minutes to transcribe what I most need from the certificate.

So far we have a request for a death certificate with exact date of death.  The record is in storage requiring someone to go to a storage facility to retrieve it.  

Time of clerk receiving request to find out where the record is (assuming indexing) - 10 minutes - (at $20 an hour) - $2.00

Time of someone to retrieve the box or ledger - half an hour - (at $15 an hour) - $7.50 - plus gas to get to storage - $3.00

Time to photocopy a loose document - 5 minutes - (at $20 an hour) - $1.00 - cost of photocopy - probably $.15 but give them $1.00.

Time to transcribe a bound document - 20 minutes (at $20 an hour) - $2.00 - cost of paper/ink - $.15

Since good family historians know to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope with their requests, there's no cost to mail it back and, since mail is picked up once or twice a day from most public offices, there's no cost in mailing the fulfilled request.

So, we have a cost of roughly $16.65.  Maybe.  And, yes, some Town Clerks are paid $20 per hour and they deserve it.  They have many legal and fiscal responsibilities for which they are held legally liable and they have to put up  with the public, meaning us, who do not always behave well.

However, even this cost is too high for those of us who gain nothing financially from our research, yet need these documents and pass them on to historical societies and/or family members.  There has to be a way to reduce the costs of these documents.  They are, after all, public documents, belonging to the public.

So, here are a few thoughts:

Vital records have to be organized, indexed, digitized, and put online.  ASAP.  They should also be microfilmed and housed, paper and film, in monitored, fire-controlled, temperature-controlled facilities.  The digitized copies have to be mirrored, best practice I would think would be, on local, county and state servers.

Microfilming and digitizing are not cheap.  They both require either specialized equipment and staff trained to use them or they require contracting with someone who has both.

However, I believe that with the efforts of local historical societies and local genealogists, family historians and volunteers, some of the work can be done effectively and cheaply and the information and documents made more widely available.

I will try to look into this more, both how the actual process of fulfilling document requests and what can be done to make these vital documents more available.  It's given me an idea.

Now I have to get to the supermarket.  Have a great day.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cradle to the Grave

I'm not a professional genealogist.  I believe I've said it before but I'll say it again and I'll continue to say it; I'm a family historian.  I am, however, a professional librarian with decades of library experience and decades of family history research experience.  I've made many of the mistakes that most people make when they start researching their family history.

It's good to begin with a goal in mind.  Maybe there's a family illness that you want to get more information about.  Maybe there was some change in the way your family lived and you want to understand what changed.  Maybe, as in my case, there's a family legend that you've grown up with and you suddenly realize that you have no idea if it's true or not.  And, maybe you just want to know more about the people who came before you.  It's good to begin with a goal in mind to aim for.

But, sometimes the desire to reach that goal makes us impatient and sloppy and we leap on the first new clue that seems to move us closer to that goal.  Sometimes, too intense a focus on that goal leads us to overlook information that initially seems unimportant and trivial because it doesn't tell us anything about what we're so intent on finding.  That can be a mistake that will cost months and years of time in backtracking to recover information we bypassed and ignored.

I began with a very specific goal and spent quite a few years moving along fruitfully toward that goal, in a straight line and up against a brick wall in my matrilineal family.  Along the way, I noticed other interesting things about other branches of the family and learned some things about my paternal families.  I decided to research ALL my families, maternal and paternal.  After years of research, having reached brick walls on every line, I realized I need more living relatives to tell me what they know and, since I'm not getting any younger, neither are they and time is a-wasting.

There are too many gaps in too many family branches; decades are empty when I can't find a particular family group.  Why?  Where were they?

So, I began a Cradle to the Grave research on each and every individual in my database, to fill in holes, not just for that individual but for their parents, spouses and children; because you never now where a bit of information has been documented.

Each of the individuals in my families database was born, lived a life, some had a family, and they died.  Each of those lives was filled with many activities and other people.  Tracking each of those individuals tells me something about that person and about the people around them.  It also places them in the context of geography and history.

It's very interesting following them through their lives.  They were born there and lived there how long?  Then, the family moved there.  Why?  What did they do for a living?  Sometimes they lived near other family members.  Sometimes they ventured off on their own.  Sometimes work or the military took them to new places.  Sometimes family tragedy changed the make up of a particular family.  Sometimes other family members merged branches of the family together.

You begin to see a pattern in the life of each individual, in their family group. You get a sense of the path they took.  Sometimes this helps when suddenly they disappear for a decade or more.  Sometimes you get a feeling where they might have gone, who they might have gone to.  Not always, but sometimes.

We're fortunately, me and my families, that so many were in New York State where, in addition to the federal censuses, taken every 10 years on the decade, there was, for many years, a state census, also taken every 10 years on the 5th year.  It's possible to get a snapshot of a family group nearly every 5 years for quite a few decades.  The missing gaps are always a mystery but part of the picture.  In following their lives, other members of the family come into view from time to time, revealing more information about the family as a whole and about those individuals as well.

It's a time consuming but rewarding practice.

Copyright, FamilyTracker, Lorraine I. O'Dell, 2013.  All rights reserved.