As a follow-up to our successful FOIL request to get the New York State death index 1880-1956, we turned our attention to the handful of missing years and localities in that index. One of those is the city of Buffalo, New York, whose records were not included in the statewide death index until about 1914-1915.
On September 6, 2017, we filed a FOIL request (which you can read here at MuckRock) asking the Buffalo City Clerk’s Office for the death index for the missing years. They eventually complied, and sent us the data on CD’s, and we uploaded the data to the Internet Archive in December 2017.
The city of Buffalo apparently digitized these death index books around 2002, so all they had to do was send us copies of the digital files they already had sitting on their hard drive; it wasn't a whole new scanning project.
But there are some quirks with their records, some minor and some not-so-minor.
For starters, the pages were scanned in black-and-white, not even greyscale, with very high contrast. Luckily, they're still pretty easy to read, they're just not quite as gorgeous as some of the other scans we've seen over the years.
But a bigger problem is this: when Buffalo's vendor scanned the books, they didn't quite center the pages. They often cut off about a quarter of an inch of the far-right side of the page. And the far right of the page is often where the year was written. 😭
And for just the books from the 1890's, sometimes the very bottoms of the pages were cut off too. 😡
But each death index book only covers a few years at a time, and each page was written in chronological order. So, for example, if you're looking at the 1925-1928 book, and you can't quite read the full year on the far right side, you at least can narrow down the date range to just those four potential years and might even be able to guess which year it is by where the entry is on the page, the top (earlier) or the bottom (later). That should still be sufficient information to order a copy of the original death record from either the Buffalo city clerk's office or from the state Department of Health in Albany.
Another fun quirk: sometimes a few of the pages are out of order, instead of each page being alphabetical by the first letters of the surname. Some of the pages apparently came loose over the years and were shoved back into the very front or very back of their book. So for example, you might see a whole page of "Sch" surnames shoved in the back of the book, instead of in the proper alphabetical spot. This won't really be an issue once the information in these books eventually gets transcribed into a text-searchable database, but for now, you should make sure to check the whole book for those extra pages.
And a bit of good news: for a few of the years, 1891-1897, there is an awesome second page of data included for each index entry, including:
So these records aren't perfect, but they're still better than what we had before, which was absolutely nothing.
It's important to note that Reclaim The Records did not need to file a lawsuit to acquire these records. We just needed some knowledge of NY FOIL, and the stubbornness to the see the records request through. And we like to be transparent in our work, so if you want, you even can read all the back-and-forth e-mails we had with the Buffalo city clerk's office that eventually got this project done.
We're particularly proud of the part where they tried to charge us ten dollars per blank CD, but we got them down to twenty-five cents per CD, because we pointed out they were breaking the law by not charging the actual costs of materials, and could cite it to them: NY Public Officers Law §87(1)(c)(ii).
But they still made us pay for all the data we won with a money order though! *sigh* Some things in genealogy really are slow to change.
This is the original FOIL request we wrote:
To Whom It May Concern:
Hi, my name is Brooke Schreier Ganz, and I am the president and founder of a non-profit organization called Reclaim The Records. We use Freedom of Information laws and open data laws to get copies of inaccessible archival record sets released back to the public, for free use.
Pursuant to the New York State Freedom of Information Law (1977 N.Y. Laws ch. 933), I hereby request the following records:
I would like to receive a copy of the index to all Buffalo death and burial records, from as early as such records are available through December 31, 1945, inclusive. I have been told by other genealogists that there is an existing burial permit index from 1852-1877, and a more complete death index from 1878-1945, all already in digitized image format on CD-ROM and even transcribed into a text database. Please note that this request is for the photos/scans of the index and any transcribed text database of the index, but I am not asking for any copies of the actual death certificates. Our organization is hoping to make it easier for genealogists to learn which records your office may have on file in the first place, so that they can order copies of their relatives’ death certificates from your office or from the state.
While vital records, including actual death certificates, are subject to privacy laws, the basic index to the records is required to be open to the public under the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Almost two years ago, I filed this same request with the New York State Department of Health in Albany, asking for copies of their statewide death index. At that time, they only maintained their statewide death index copy in old-fashioned microfiche format, and only at a small number of upstate libraries. After a seventeen-month-long fight with them, including legal discussions with my attorneys and their Records Access Officers, the state finally conceded that an index to these records must be made available to the public under FOIL. I received my copy of the state death index from them a few months ago and our organization has recently put it online for free public use, at the Internet Archive. Having this digital copy of the index will help millions of people with New York State roots research their ancestors and order more record copies from the state.
However, that statewide death index we won, which runs from 1880-1956, does not include any deaths for Albany, Buffalo, or Yonkers prior to about 1914 or 1915, because those cities weren’t great about compliance with the law. I would like to try to fill in the gaps in the online statewide file with your city’s information, so that people can track down their ancestors’ records and order copies from you.
Please let me know in which formats you have this death and burial index. As mentioned, I have been told that images of the index already exist in digital format on CD-ROM, and there is a transcribed text database too. Because this is a FOIL request, I recognize that I will be required to reimburse your fair costs for making copies of the data, either by using in-house staff at your office, or perhaps hiring an outside vendor to do the scanning or photography for you. I will also pay for the insured shipping of the record copies to California, if necessary.
Please be advised that if you ignore or deny this request, our organization will take your office to court, under the New York Freedom of Information Law. In the past three years, we have already sued two different New York City agencies for copies of genealogical records and won settlements both times, and even won our attorneys fees the second time. And we are currently engaged in litigation against the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, fighting for copies of their statewide birth index and death index. Hopefully, that kind of legal action will not be required in this case, but we did just want to point it out to you from the outset, so you would at least have fair warning. A FOIL request like this is not a favor, it’s the law, and we are willing and able to use the law.
Please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have any questions or concerns about any part of this FOIL request. My phone number is [redacted] and my e-mail is [redacted]. Please inform me of any potential charges in advance of fulfilling my 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. I look forward to receiving your response to this request within five business days, as the statute requires.