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PROMOTING OPEN ACCESS TO PUBLIC RECORDS
A GUIDE FOR GENEALOGISTS
Many of us are concerned when we hear of proposed legislation that is intended to restrict or eliminate access to public records. Tune in to the websites mentioned in this guide –– they will hopefully prove useful to you when trying to navigate the world of legislation. Click on and bookmark the links provided.
Subscribe to the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) blog. RPAC is a joint committee* of genealogical societies and institutions whose purpose is to coordinate a united and reasonable response to any issues we face that are of mutual concern. RPAC should be the first place we all turn because they are always on top of current legislation. Even if the website does not yet say anything specific, you can rest assured they are working behind the scenes to craft the perfect response. They have the weight of some major entities behind them and are accustomed to monitoring legislation and preparing an effective response.
Consult the RPAC list of state liaisons, and if your state does not yet have one, consider volunteering! You can email your concerns to the state liaison who will coordinate statewide efforts.The RPAC website stresses that genealogists should not "panic at the first hint of any action that would endanger access and/or preservation of records they consider crucial to their research. These actions, while well intended, usually exacerbate an otherwise negotiable issue." Remember that legislation takes a very long time to work through the system and we will have plenty of time to assess each particular bill and contact legislators to let them know where we stand.
Visit the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies website for up-to-date information on legislation all around the country. Click on the Legislation button in the left menu, scroll down to Latest Alerts and you will download the status of bills across the country.
Sign up on the Massachusetts Genealogical Council webpage (left column) to directly receive the MGC Bulletin which will announce pending legislation and calls to action in Massachusetts and elsewhere. MGC's home page now also has the a feed of the RPAC blog.
A brand new group has popped up on Facebook called Occupy Genealogy ––another way to stay informed. This group will undoubtedly have an extensive reach and will serve as yet another way to coordinate efforts. Occupy Genealogy has the potential to reach a whole new world of genealogists that are unaware of RPAC's history.
Learn About the Legislative Process in your State
Every state proceeds differently, yet there are similarities. Jan Meisels Allen, Vice President of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and chairperson of their Public Records Access and Monitoring Committee (PRAMC), has created a wonderful video overview which you can find here.
I will use Massachusetts as an example, but the procedure you need to follow is similar for every state. To find your own state or (Canadian) provincial legislative website you can consult the IAJGS's Government Legislative Websites or simply google "state name" and "legislature".
The 187th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts website which provides links to many useful pages and external websites. It is most instructive to read through the How an Idea Becomes Law so that you get a feel for why it is such an agonizingly slow process. Check on the status of a bill with Massachusetts Bill Search, and then if you want to write letters, but aren't sure who your state senators and reps are, try Find My Massachusetts Legislator.
If you can spare a few moments now to familiarize yourself with these websites and bookmark them, you will be ready to act at a moment's notice when a call to action is issued.
If you are plugged into the RPAC blog, the IAJGS Legislative Alerts, the MGC website Bulletin and Occupy Genealogy you will receive notification when a controversial bill is coming up before a committee. At that point you can start writing letters. For federal legislation, you may also want to write to your US Senators and Representatives.
It is quite likely that you will find a model letter that you can personalize. Remember to substitute the proper information and try to add some of your own thoughts. In addition to sending letters to your own representatives and senators, don't forget those who actually sponsored the bill and those who serve on the committees.
It may also be possible that you feel you need to start from scratch and write up a brand new bill. How to Draft a Bill is a great place to start, but we aware that RPAC may already be on the job. Always check with them first.
Attend Committee Meetings
Familiar yourself ahead of time with directions and a floor plan of your State House. Program your GPS or GoogleMaps with the nearest parking garage address, not the State House itself. Coordinate rides with other genealogists. Investigate restaurants in the area. Remember you are representing a vast number of people and the more professionally you dress and act, the better you will represent the genealogical community (no eating ice cream cones, no flip-flops, etc!).
Give the legislators some feedback when the bill has passed, whether positive or negative. Again, let them know how well-connected you are in the genealogical community. And congratulate yourself on your own participation in the legislative process. That's what democracy is all about!
* RPAC Voting members: The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), the National Genealogical Society (NGS), and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies(IAJGS). Participating members include the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), the American Society of Genealogists (ASG), ProQuest, and Ancestry.com.