Screenshot of NYCMarriageIndex.comThis data is online at NYCMarriageIndex.com and the Internet Archive

The 1950-1995 and 1996-2017 portions of the index to New York City marriage licenses are now freely searchable online! Check out NYCMarriageIndex.com to search the names. You can even download the raw data files in spreadsheet, .CSV, or SQL format.

You can also check out the scanned microfilm images of the 1908-1972 portion of the marriage license data at the Internet Archive.

What We Did and How We Did It

Back in 2016, Reclaim The Records filed a New York Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the New York City Clerk’s Office, asking them for the first-ever public copy of the New York City marriage license index, for all marriages after 1930. The city failed to respond to the request at all, and then failed to respond to the FOIL appeal in the proper timeframe, so we took them to court. The city settled the lawsuit, handed over the marriage license index records for 1930-1995, and then paid our attorneys fees.

And that was pretty awesome. But in that settlement, we only won the data up to 1995, not up to the present day, because in the wording of our request, we had asked the city for a copy of their index. The problem was that starting in 1996, all New York City marriage licenses were “born digital” documents, created solely in a database, and there was no longer any separately-compiled index. To get those post-1996 records, we would have to write a brand new Freedom of Information request and word it a little differently, this time asking for a partial database extract rather than an index.

And so we did. In September 2017, Reclaim The Records filed a brand new FOIL request, once again with the New York City Clerk’s Office, asking for the continuation of that marriage license data, covering marriages from 1996-2016. Here is the text of our FOIL request; pay special attention to the last sentence:

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Brooke Schreier Ganz and I am the founder and president of a 501(c)3 non-profit organization called Reclaim The Records. Pursuant to the New York State Freedom of Information Law (1977 N.Y. Laws ch. 933), I hereby request the following, on behalf of our organization:

We would like an extract of the database of all New York City marriage records from January 1, 1996 through December 31, 2016, inclusive. These records are held at your agency, the New York City Clerk’s office. Please note that we are not asking for any actual marriage certificates or licenses, which we recognize have strict privacy rules. We are only seeking a basic index or finding aid to these records.

This request is a follow-up to a successful FOIL request that I made of your department last year, where I asked for a copy of the index to New York City marriage licenses from 1930-2015. After your office neglected to respond to both my FOIL request and my FOIL appeal in a timely manner, I filed an Article 78 petition in the Supreme Court of New York in mid-2016. Your office eventually settled that case with me, paid my attorneys fees, and delivered the index, which consisted of more than one hundred microfilm copies and several Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. However, I had asked in that original request for an index to all marriage records through 2015, but my attorney and I were told by your office that you could only provide me with an index up to 1995. Your office told us that starting in 1996, there was no longer a separately compiled “index” to marriages conducted in New York City, as the data started to become “born digital” at that point, and was inputted directly into a computer database. I accepted this as part of our legal settlement, and so I agreed to only accept the separate marriage index through 1995.

Therefore, our organization is now asking for an extract of the information in this 1996-to-present marriage database, as this information would be analogous to a marriage index or a “marriage log” as defined in the law, and it would complete the years of information available to the public about New York City marriages.

We recognize that there may be parts of this marriage database that cannot be turned over in a FOIL request, as they would likely be infringing on people’s privacy. Under FOIL, your agency is still required to provide us a sub-set of the information in the database, removing any columns of data that are too intrusive.

We request that the columns of data in this database extract include — at the very least — the same fields of data you already turned over to me in my previous FOIL request, which you agreed at that time were acceptable under the law. These database fields include:

– Bride (or Spouse #1) given name
– Bride (or Spouse #1) middle name
– Bride (or Spouse #1) surname
– Groom (or Spouse #2) given name
– Groom (or Spouse #2) middle name
– Groom (or Spouse #2) surname
– date of marriage license application
– county or Borough of marriage license application
– marriage license number

In this case, we would appreciate your including any other database fields which may reasonably be disclosed under the law, such as:

– Bride (or Spouse #1) name suffix (i.e. “Junior”)
– Bride (or Spouse #1) sex
– Bride (or Spouse #1) city, state, and/or country of birth
– Bride (or Spouse #1) city, state, and/or country of residence
– Groom (or Spouse #2) name suffix (i.e. “Junior”)
– Groom (or Spouse #2) sex
– Groom (or Spouse #2) city, state, and/or country of birth
– Groom (or Spouse #2) city, state, and/or country of residence
– any other database fields or columns that are not explicitly disallowed under the law

Please refer to the following case for a discussion of what has already been deemed to be public and not-public in a New York marriage index: “Gannett Co., Inc. v. City Clerk’s Office, City of Rochester”, 596 NYS 2d 968, affirmed unanimously, 197 AD 2d 919 (1993).

Please also read the New York State Committee on Open Government (COOG)’s published Advisory Opinions on “Marriage Records” and “Matrimonial Records”, some of which are available online on their public website: http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/foil_listing/fm.html They discuss what kinds of information in a marriage index or log are considered to be open to the public, and which ones can or should be withheld.

We would prefer to receive this database or database extract in SQL or CSV format, on a USB hard drive, with insured and trackable shipping to California; we will be happy to pay for all of this. The requested documents will be made available to the general public, and this request is not being made for commercial purposes. Please inform us of any potential charges in advance of fulfilling our request. Please also be advised that this FOIL request is being filed publicly through the website MuckRock.com, and all correspondence about this request will be immediately published to the general public.

Thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation in this matter. We look forward to receiving your response to this request within five business days, as the statute requires.

We very much hope that we will not have to take your office to court again.

SPOILER: We did, in fact, have to take their office to court again.

But we won again, and we got the records again, and the city had to pay our attorneys fees again, so hey, it’s all good.

The city tried to claim to us that providing a database extract, with some overly-personal fields and columns redacted, was akin to creating a brand new document, and that under NY FOIL they didn’t have to create a new record, only provide copies of records already in their possession. We pointed out that this was ridiculous; government agencies provide databases and partial database extracts under FOIL all the time! And it’s not like databases are some brand new technology and this was an unexplored corner of the law; there are literally decades of settled New York case law on this subject. The need to redact some parts of a data set does not absolve a government entity or agency from providing the rest of the data. But the city didn’t care, and they even flat out refused to respond to our FOIL Appeal — which is, y’know, illegal.

And just so we’re all clear about what kind of incompetence we were dealing with here, this city FOIL Officer making these ridiculous claims, and then failing to follow through on even responding to the FOIL Appeal, is not some minor clerk or office worker who didn’t know any better. No, this guy is an attorney who represents the city of New York. And he’s the very same dude who handled the previous marriage license FOIL request for us back in 2016, costing the city thousands of dollars in attorneys fees. He knew who we were when we made this request, and he knew our history of litigation, but he flubbed it all anyway, again. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Photo of DVD containing the records we wonAnyway, we filed our “Article 78” legal petition in the Supreme Court of New York in January 2018. The city settled with us in April 2018, we received the records at the end of May 2018. We uploaded the records and made them freely available to the public and announced our win in early June 2018. For the record, the city agreed to pay us $4,500 in attorneys fees — and that’s in addition to paying out however many thousands of dollars it cost them in their own attorneys fees. (Thanks, New York City taxpayers! Hope you guys weren’t planning on having a better use for that money in your budget.)

As part of the settlement, and because the request had dragged on for more than six months, we asked the city to provide marriage license data all the way through the end of 2017 rather than just 2016. We also asked the city to provide the actual date of the marriage, if known, rather than just the year that the license had been issued. We felt this was important, because sometimes people might get their marriage license at the end of one calendar year but not actually marry until several weeks into the new year. That meant that any information online about license dates might be misleadingly conflated with marriage dates. The city agreed to both of these terms in the settlement.

Finally, it’s important to note that New York State started legally recognizing same-sex marriages in June 2011. That means that for the 2011-2017 portion of this data, which is six and a half years of data, the database headers “Bride” and “Groom” are gender-agnostic and should be referred to as “Spouse #1” and “Spouse #2”. This change affects opposite-sex couples as well, because either party to a marriage after June 2011 could choose to list themselves in any order when filling out the paperwork. The city apparently did not add any new database columns to record either party’s sex.

Just as we did in our previous lawsuit two years ago, we’ve made this new marriage license data available for free public use. The city provided us with .XSLX (Microsoft Excel) spreadsheets of their database for 1996-2017. We took that data and cleaned it up slightly and exported it as plain-text .CSV files. We then imported them into a new MySQL database as new tables, and added an auto-incrementing ‘id’ field to each, since there wasn’t any primary key or unique key. All three of these file formats — a zip of the .XSLX files, a zip of the .CSV files, and the .SQL file — are available for free download at the Internet Archive, just as we had done for the 1950-1995 data set.

But those files are pretty big and hard to work with for most people, so we at Reclaim The Records have created a much easier way for people to search these records. We’ve uploaded the data to our website www.NYCMarriageIndex.com, where you can run all kinds of searches, including soundalike names, wildcard and partial name searches, nickname and name synonym recognition, filtering by year and/or by borough, and so on. It even has a prototype ranking algorithm, to show best matches first, like some of your favorite for-profit genealogy websites.

And yes, we do expect that all your favorite for-profit and non-profit genealogy websites will be loading this new 1996-2017 data set into their websites eventually. The more the merrier! All we ask is that they stick a tiny reference to Reclaim The Records and where the data came from in the “about this database” source box.

So, does this mean that every single year of New York City marriage data is finally online now? Well, almost. There’s one last data set we need to reclaim before we can check this off our to-do list: we still need to reclaim the records for all the people who got married, but couldn’t legally call it marriage, in New York prior to 2011. All people and all families deserve to have their records available. That’s why Reclaim The Records will soon be filing a brand new Freedom of Information request for a public copy of the New York City domestic partnership index. The NYC Department of Personnel began a partnership registry for city employees in August 1988, and the City Clerk’s Office began a formal registry for the general public in January 1993. (More details here.) The program was not discontinued even after the statewide legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2011, so we’ll be asking for this data all the way up through December 31, 2017.

And you know what’s funny? The agency to whom we’re sending this new FOIL request is once again the New York City Clerk’s Office, the very same people who have by now lost to us twice and spent thousands of dollars doing it. Maybe they’ll finally get their act together for this third go-round, but if not, we’ll be happy to take them to court once again.

Our thanks go out to our awesome attorneys at the law firm Beldock, Levine, & Hoffman in New York City for their help in successfully handling this case.

Paperwork and Court Filings
FOIL Appeal Letter
FOIL Appeal Letter

FOIL appeal letter sent to the New York City Clerk's Office on November 17, 2017.

Article 78 legal petition, filed in the Supreme Court of New York on January 10, 2018
Article 78 legal petition, filed in the Supreme Court of New York on January 10, 2018

The New York City Clerk's Office refused to even respond to our FOIL Appeal! So we sued them. 💅

Stipulation of Settlement from New York City, received April 27, 2018
Stipulation of Settlement from New York City, received April 27, 2018

Once again, the city had to concede that they were breaking the law, and moved to settle the lawsuit. And once again they had to pay our attorneys fees.

State or Vital Records Jurisdiction: New York City

Government Agency: New York City Clerk's Office

Law: New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL)

Record Type: Marriage Records

Record Years: 1996-2017

Record Format: Index

Record Physical Format: Several .XSLX (spreadsheet) files, which we converted to .CSV and .SQL files for easier use

Number of Records (Estimated): 1,581,134 records, or about 3.1 million names

The New York State birth index