In January 2019, Reclaim The Records became aware of a new bill being proposed in the Washington State Legislature, SB 5332, that would restrict access to state vital records. Washington had been an “open records” state for years, with a robust and progressive program to crowdsource transcriptions of archival records, so this was surprising and troubling.

The good news was that this proposed bill would continue to allow for non-certified “informational only” copies of records to be provided, which are sometimes known as “genealogy copies” in other states. But the bad news was that the bill’s text, as originally drafted, would possibly remove all public access to the existing indices to vital records, including the state death index and possibly even the marriage and divorce indices. (Washington does not currently have a full statewide birth index, although some individual counties do for some years.)

This would create a very odd situation, whereby anyone could order a non-certified copy of anyone’s record for any reason, whether you were related to that person or not — but only if you already knew that the record existed in the first place, and when and where, since the index would now be restricted from all public searches.

To hopefully prevent this censorship of public data, we at Reclaim The Records decided to make our first Washington Public Records Act (PRA) request to three state agencies to make sure the existing indices would live on, free and in the hands of the public, regardless of whatever might happen with the passage of SB 5332. On January 30, 2019, the night before the first hearing on the bill was to take place, we sent the following PRA request through the MuckRock website to the Washington State Department of Health, the Washington State Archives, and the Washington Secretary of State’s Office (which is the parent agency of the Archives):

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Brooke Schreier Ganz, and I am the president and founder of a 501(c)3 non-profit organization called Reclaim The Records. We are an association of genealogists, historians, journalists, teachers, and open data researchers who use freedom of information laws and open data policies to acquire copies of historical records and then place them online for free public use. We also advocate for greater transparency and public access for archival records.

The state of Washington has generally been excellent about providing records access for its citizens, an open records state for decades. The state’s various agencies have published all sorts of archival records and indices to the public, and have even helped create new crowdsourced transcriptions of records through the online “Scribe” program at the Washington State Archives website. However, our organization has recently been made aware that there is a new vital records bill that is being introduced in the Washington State Legislature, SB 5332, which might suddenly lock away public access to these important records and indices in the future. Therefore, we are now making this Washington Public Records Act request to various state agencies to acquire existing copies of some of these important vital records indices, so that they will remain available to the public even if this overly restrictive bill passes in its current format.

On behalf of Reclaim The Records, pursuant to the Washington Public Records Act, we would like to request copies of the following records:

1) Please provide a digital copy of the “Department of Health, Death Index, 1907-1960; 1965-2017” database. This database was originally created by the Department of Health, and is publicly and freely available on the Washington State Archives’ “Digital Archives” website at this URL:

https://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/Collections/TitleInfo/472

Please note that within the description of this database under the heading “Access Restriction Notes” the metadata explicitly says “This index is open for research.”. And this data has been already made available to other organizations in the past, including to the non-profit organization FamilySearch.org and to the commercial genealogy company Ancestry.com. Therefore, there should be no impediment to making this data available to us, as well. We would prefer to receive a copy of this database file in its native digital format, such as an SQL file export, or a CSV (comma separated value) file export.

If there is an updated version of this file available (even if it is not yet online), extending the death record index through 2018, we would like to request a copy of that newer version, too.

2) The database listed above does not contain an index of deaths for the years 1961-1964; that portion of the index is apparently only on microfilm at this time, presumably not having yet been transcribed. The text of the Archives web page listed above states “The indexes for 1961-1964 are available on microfilm at the State Archives in Olympia.” Please provide us a copy of these microfilms. We would accept either direct microfilm-to-microfilm duplication, or else we would accept digital scans of your microfilms. Please let us know the estimated cost for both methods of duplication, to help us make our choice.

3) Unfortunately, the current text of SB 5332 may also attempt to restrict public access to any information derived from a marriage record, even just the basic index data. Therefore, we are also requesting a copy of every marriage index database held at the Department of Health and/or the Washington State Archives. A listing of these various marriage index databases is online at this URL:

https://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/Collections#RSID:1

We would like a copy of every marriage index database referenced within that “Marriage Records” collection, including all of the individual county-level datasets as well as the “Department of Health, Marriage Index, 1969-2014” data set. If there are newer versions available for any of these databases extending the years available, even if they are not yet online, we would like copies of those updated databases as well. We would prefer to receive a copy of these database files in their native digital formats, such as SQL file exports, or CSV (comma separated value) file exports.

4) Similarly, we would also like a copy of the “Department of Health, Divorce Index, 1969-2014” database, which is also online at the State Archives. If there is a newer version available for this database extending the years available, even if it is not yet online, we would like a copy of that as well. We would prefer to receive a copy of this files in its native digital format, such as a SQL file export, or CSV (comma separated value) file export.

Please note that in all four of these requests, we are only asking for an index or the “finding aid” — and we are not seeking copies of any actual death certificate images or actual marriage licenses, etc. We just want to ensure that genealogists and other researchers will still be able to do free searches in the state’s files even if SB 5332 passes in its current form.

These requested indices will be made available to the general public, and this request is not being made for commercial purposes. In the event that there are fees, please inform us of the total charges in advance of fulfilling the request. We would prefer the request be filled electronically if possible, by e-mail attachment if available or USB hard drive if not.

Thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation in this matter. We look forward to receiving your response to this request within 5 business days, as the statute requires.

Sincerely,

Brooke Schreier Ganz
President and Founder of Reclaim The Records
https://www.reclaimtherecords.org/

We will keep you updated on the progress of our PRA request, as well as SB 5332.

State or Vital Records Jurisdiction: Washington

Archive or Library: Washington State Archives

Government Agency: Washington State Department of Health

Law: Washington Public Records Act (PRA)

Record Type: Death Records · Divorce Records · Marriage Records

Record Years: c. 1907-2017

Record Format: Index

Record Physical Format: Databases and microfilms

Number of Records (Estimated): Unknown. Death index alone is over 3 million records.

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(We ask because some states' Freedom of Information laws only allow state residents to make a FOIL request.)












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Reclaim The Records vs. NYC Municipal Archives - Brooklyn (Kings County) 'Old Town' recordsGroup Photo at NYC DOH public comments hearing, October 2017