Who are you?
We’re a not-for-profit group of genealogists, historians, researchers, and open government advocates who are filing Freedom of Information requests to get public data released back into the public domain. We’re collecting information about archivally important data sets that are not available online or on publicly available microfilm, and we’re using Freedom of Information laws and Open Data initiatives to get copies of this information released back to the public.
We were founded in 2015 by Brooke Schreier Ganz, a genealogy nerd who lives in California, and we launched publicly in early September 2015. Within six weeks we already had more than 1,000 supporters subscribed to our e-mail newsletter and more than 1,100 people who Liked our Facebook page. By February 2016, our newsletter had grown to over 1,600 subscribers, and by July 1, 2016 we had over 2,300 subscribers.
What do you do?
We make requests for copies of genealogical and archival records and data, from city and state libraries, archives, city clerks’ offices, departments of health, and other government agencies. Our primary method to force the release of this data is the use of state Freedom of Information laws. We started with one pilot project in 2015, and after winning the release of that data, we launched six more records requests in late 2015 and early 2016.
We plan on documenting our experiences and creating a “how-to” guide for others. We hope to inspire more genealogists and historians to use these lesser-known methods of regaining access to public information being kept by state and local government entities.
What was that story I heard about a New York City marriage index?Our pilot project was launched in January 2015, seeking access to the index to the 1908-1929 New York City Clerk’s Office marriage license, applications, and affidavits. These records were only available onsite at the New York City Municipal Archives in lower Manhattan, but nowhere else. They were also only available on microfilm, no other format. We wanted to get copies of these records, scan them, and put them online for public use.
Initially the New York City Municipal Archives approved our New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, but then suddenly denied it, without explanation. We appealed, but the Archives denied the appeal. We got the New York State Committee on Open Government (COOG) to write an Advisory Opinion supporting our case, but the Archives ignored it. At no time did they ever cite a legal reason why we were not entitled to a copy of these records under New York State’s FOIL.
So we took the NYC Municipal Archives’ parent agency, the NYC Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS), to the Supreme Court of the State of New York, in an “Article 78” legal petition, more commonly referred to as a FOIL lawsuit. Their attorney settled with us five days before they were due to face us in court, and we won everything we’d asked for. We believe this is the first time that a genealogist has ever forced an archive to release this kind of archival data under a state FOI lawsuit.
We received the majority of our 450,000 records in mid-October 2015 as a set of 46 microfilms; the final two films, which were stored in a different vault, arrived in January 2016. After they were all digitally scanned, we uploaded all the new images to the Internet Archive for free and open access in April 2016. The records do not have any copyright or usage restrictions — they are now free and open data forever. Read more about our pilot project here!
And then we moved on to a whole lot of other projects, to free even more public data…
Can I donate to you guys?
Thanks, that’s very generous of you, but we’re good. We’re a not-for-profit group, but we’re not set up as a formal 501(c)3 non-profit, and we don’t want any funds. So if you really want to help out, take our records survey to help us identify more genealogical and historical records that are being unfairly blocked from public access. We’ll investigate all the record sets mentioned and see if they may be good candidates for future FOIL requests.