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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.

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