Intellectual Freedom Fighters, Part 1: Reclaim the Records

Access, Privacy

By: Kelly Bilz

In Intellectual Freedom Fighters, a five-part series, I hope to draw attention to organizations who are either extraordinary or unique in their efforts to preserve and protect intellectual freedom. These organizations might have drawn my attention due to their specific focus within intellectual freedom, their successes, or their extreme measures. This first part’s highlight belongs to Reclaim the Records.

Nothing gets under the skin of government bureaucracy or large-scale genealogy corporations quite like Reclaim the Records, a group of genealogists-turned-activists who file Freedom of Information and Open Data requests to make government records published.

The Reclaim the Records team identifies records that should be public record but are unavailable online. In fact, on their website, they invite readers to request records they personally want to be available or think should be. They have a web page devoted to their ongoing requests, and they post updates on Twitter and in newsletters. In fact, they event make their FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests publicly available online.

Old Volumes, by Suzy Hazelwood, via PexelsThe devotion of these activists leaps off the screen and gets you riled up about documents you never thought you’d be angry about: why hasn’t Florida shared its probate records? And how DARE New York State keep its 1800-1956 death index from us?

Best of all, they are aware of their high-spirited online presence, encouraging their readers to “[r]ead our snarky GIF-filled tweets on Twitter,” and adding comments like “Shaaaaady” in their newsletter about a particularly problematic case with the New York State Department of Health. As a non-profit of researchers, genealogist, and historians, they are free to cause trouble, and they are free from the restraints of academic libraries and public libraries who have institutional interests to protect.

So, they are able to fight for our records to be free.

Recently, Reclaim the Records has made headlines in the genealogy world in a long, drawn-out battle to get the New York State marriage index. They have published the index spanning 1881-1965, but they are currently suing for the rest. The issue with accessing this marriage index, which surpassed the other bureaucratic headaches the organization has faced so far, is that asked for the index as well, apparently after Reclaim the Records filed their request…yet received it first.

Reclaim the Record’s impatience with this recent battle is evident, as well as their frustration with the apparent speed and efficiency’s request met with. In this post about the records’ long and perilous journey (that is the most entertaining vent about bureaucratic red tape you’ll read), they specify all the challenges: finally being sent the records, for instance, only for the USB to be sent to the wrong address. Government efficiency?

Of course, the processes of retrieving, copying, and distributing records—as any information professional can tell you—is expensive and time-consuming. It can be a real pain to go through the effort and resources to make microfilm or even original records digital, and then to put it online. This is especially when there’s a backlog, like there is in most, if not all, repositories.

It’s probably not rewarding, either, if a non-profit is constantly monitoring your progress or asking for more. One request from Reclaim the Records, for example, is for 143 rolls of microfilm of records from Brooklyn, which even they admit is a lot.

However, that same request, for the Brooklyn (Kings County) “Old Town” Records, includes birth records for the enslaved, as well as manumission records. Since people of color already face much more obstacles in their genealogical research than Euro-Americans at the very outset, these records take on an additional political importance. So little of the lives of the enslaved have been preserved; shouldn’t the records that exist be made accessible?

On the other hand, repositories frequently raise the question of privacy, perhaps the most issue in all this. When should information about people’s private lives become the public record? Privacy—at least by the New York State Department of Health—is wielded as the great ethical obligation to keep records under wraps. Privacy laws and Freedom of Information laws conflict, but many genealogists complain that these rules seem arbitrary. Many times, they vary from state-to-state.

Speaking from my own experience tracking down an estranged great-uncle, I found I was very successful in tracing his movements until his death in the 1990s, despite the 72-year limit on census data, with city directories and digitized newspapers from Ancestry. It seems that privacy only matters when there’s not a pay wall.

Perhaps the most important thing Reclaim the Records has done—aside, of course, from reclaiming twenty million records—is situate genealogical records within discussions of intellectual freedom. This is data about the public, after all, and who is the public? Us. Our records, our ancestors’ data, being reclaimed by this non-profit.

Their dedication and endurance in filing lawsuits and cutting through red tape benefits us all. Moreover, their jocular tone is not only refreshing, it’s much more readable for non-expert audiences. Most researchers in genealogy are not professionals; they are simply the curious family members, the designated relatives for keeping the family history. Reclaim the Records is the hero we deserve, and the one we need.


Kelly BilzKelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.

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