Records Request #5

New Jersey Birth, Marriage, and Death Indices, 1901-1903 and 1901-1914

Reclaim The Records is excited to announce that, in coordination with the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton, we have acquired the microfilmed indices to approximately 445,000 vital records — births, marriages, and deaths — from the state of New Jersey. They’ve never been available to researchers outside of the Archives building before, and they’ve never been online on any websites, nor downloadable as open data.

And we’re gonna put them online! For free!

These records also represent (we think) the first publicly available index for any twentieth century vital records from New Jersey. The state has indexed a lot of its pre-1900 vital records, as well as some of its post-1900 non-vital records (such as lists of official name changes), and they have put those databases online for free searches. But they don’t have any of their post-1900 vital records available on any websites. They’re not in any of the major for-profit genealogical websites’ databases, and even everyone’s favorite large non-profit genealogical organization only has a selection of some birth and christening records and some limited county-level (not state-level) marriage records available post-1900, but that coverage is spotty.

So, yeah, this is big news.

The awesome, generous, amazing New Jersey State Archives has sent us copies of the following microfilms from their collection:

Record Type Years Approx. Number of Records
NJ Birth Index 1901-1903 100,000 birth records
NJ Marriage Index – by Groom’s name 1901-1903 44,000 marriage records
NJ Marriage Index – by Bride’s name 1901-1914 205,000 marriage records
NJ Death Index 1901-1903 96,000 death records
Total approximate number of records: 445,000 records

All of these new records being provided to us by the Archives are indices, not the actual certificates. But luckily ordering genealogical copies of the original certificates from them is easy, inexpensive, and unrestricted for these older records.

You might ask, how did you figure out approximately how many records there were? Well, a search of the web led to this document published by the State of New Jersey’s Center for Health Statistics, which compares the birth, marriage, and death rates in the state for the years 1900 and 2000. Assuming that the incidence of these events in 1901, 1902, and 1903 was not significantly different than it was in 1900, we just multiplied the 1900 numbers by three years and rounded up slightly, to account for the increasing population.

Note that the Brides Index goes all the way up to 1914, instead of stopping in 1903 like the other kinds of indices.

Who, What, Where, When, and How?!

So, you might be wondering: how did we get these records? Was it through another Freedom of Information request, filed under New Jersey’s version of the law, which they call OPRA (the New Jersey Open Public Records Act)?

Well, frankly, that was our original plan. Readers of our previous newsletter issue probably noticed that we had listed an OPRA challenge to acquire New Jersey vital records as our Records Request #5, all set to be filed in January 2016, along with many upcoming FOIL requests to various New York State and New York City agencies. (Those are still being planned, and coming soon…)

But in doing the research to figure out exactly which records to request, we had a long phone call with genealogist Michelle Tucker Chubenko. Michelle is president of the New Jersey Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists (NJ-APG) and she is extremely knowledgeable about the holdings of the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton, working there for client research several times a month. She was the one who told us about these indices.

The Archives holds microfilmed copies of New Jersey vital records up through the mid-twentieth century, as well as some original paper copies through the very early twentieth century. Researchers who are onsite are free to browse the records, but an index is only available for a very small number of those records, 1901-1903 and then sometimes starting again in the 1940’s. That means that for most of the post-1904 vital records, researchers have to sit there and browse through the actual certificates within each individual year. The certificates are usually arranged in alphabetical order by surname, but sometimes are filed in Soundex order, just to keep things interesting.

And to reiterate, none of this twentieth century material is available online at all.

Reclaim the Records thought this sounded like a pretty analogous situation to the case we won against the New York City Municipal Archives back in September: indices that are available for researchers to view onsite, but nowhere else. We decided that trying to acquire copies of this small number of existing indices for 1901-1903, while not as large a year range as we would have liked, sounded like a good test case for our first usage of New Jersey’s OPRA law. The indices were relatively self-contained on a few reels of film, they were indices rather than certificates (indices would probably be easier to win under FOIL or OPRA, and actual certificates are harder), and they were old enough that we wouldn’t have to worry about privacy restrictions. And so Reclaim The Records started making plans to find an OPRA-knowledgeable attorney in New Jersey.

But then something awesome happened.

Thanks to an introduction from the resourceful Michelle, the executive director of the New Jersey State Archives Joseph R. Klett agreed to speak to Reclaim The Records on a phone call. He is a very nice guy and, as it turns out, a serious genealogist. He had heard through the grapevine about our successful FOIL case against the NYC Municipal Archives, and our plans to put those records online for free use. But unlike NYC’s position, Mr. Klett was not denying us copies of the indices, and he thought the idea of putting these indices online for free public use was a great idea!

So, in this case, we didn’t need to file an OPRA request at all, no legal maneuvering or court cases whatsoever. In the end, the New Jersey State Archives flat out sold Reclaim The Records the twenty-nine vital records index microfilms for the low, low price of $35 each. They gave us free shipping, and even threw in some free alternate copies for three rolls where some records were too light or too dark.

And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, they asked, oh, by the way, do you want copies of the 1901-1914 Brides Index too? You totally should index that data too. And we were like, uh, yeah, we’ll take it!

The whole process could not have been easier or more pleasant, and we are very thankful to Mr. Klett and the New Jersey State Archives for their decision.

Like a reel within a reel

This part won’t be as relevant once the data gets scanned and is eventually made searchable, but here’s the way the physical media is currently arranged:

NJ Birth Index:

  • 1901: 4 reels
  • 1902: 4 reels
  • 1903: 1 reel

NJ Marriage Index – Grooms:

  • 1901: 1 reel
  • 1902: 1 reel (plus one extra copy scanned at a lighter setting)
  • 1903: 1 reel (plus one extra copy scanned at a lighter setting)

NJ Marriage Index – Brides:

  • 1901-1903: 2 reels
  • 1904-1909: 6 reels
  • 1910-1914: 6 reels

NJ Death Index:

  • 1901: 1 reel (plus one extra copy scanned at a lighter setting)
  • 1902: 1 reel
  • 1903: 1 reel

Total: 29 reels of microfilm, plus three alternate reels. We’ll make sure that when these files eventually go online, links will be provided on the web pages that display the darker and lighter copies of the same reels, so researchers can easily switch back and forth to whichever reel has the better copy of the record they might need.

Wow. What’s next?

Our plan for these New Jersey indices is basically identical to our plan for the previously-acquired NYC marriage indices: put them online, for free, for everyone.

Sometime in the next few months, probably in very early 2016, the films will be digitally scanned and uploaded for free public access at the non-profit Internet Archive (archive.org).

Once that’s done, any non-profit organization, for-profit company, or individual researcher who wants to use the images of the indices is free to do so, for any purpose. You can download the entire set and re-post it on your own website, or print out the images and turn them into origami paper cranes, or whatever. There is no copyright on the data listed in the files (because the data compilation was created by the government), no copyrights on the newly-scanned images (because Reclaim The Records doesn't believe in that sort of thing), and no usage restrictions on any of it.

Record Set Details:

  • Record Content Type: Birth Records · Death Records · Marriage Records
  • Record Years: 1901-1903 (births, deaths, grooms index) and 1901-1914 (brides index)
  • Record Format: Index Only
  • Record Physical Format: Microfilm - 29 rolls plus extra/alternate copies of three rolls
  • Number of Records (Estimated): 100,000 births; 44,000 marriages (grooms index); 205,000 marriages (brides index) 96,000 deaths

Legal Details: