23 January 2011

Mailbox: PaHR-Access

The following are responses to questions I've recently received about PaHR-Access:

Was it in the backlog of state bills all last session?

Senator Robbins' vital records bill SB 683 was Referred to the Appropriations Committee as of October 12 of last year. To our disapointment this proved too late for it to make it to the floor before the session came to an end. An excerpt from the official PaHR-Access website explains further:

All bills routinely go through this committee so a cost analysis can be added. Fortunately for this bill there is no cost involved. If anything it would actually generate more revenue on a straight user fee basis. Next up is to get Chairperson Senator Jake Corman to bring the bill for a vote in this committee. If it is approved it would go back to the floor of the State Senate for a final vote by the State Senate. (Click for full article)

Do you feel like Senator Robbins’ written proposal will get PaHR enough co-sponsors to get it to the floor in the near future?

Under the last session SB 683 had 16 cosponsors. As of January 20 we already had 15 reported cosponsors for the new session. I'm uncertain how many more weeks Senator Robbins will choose to gather cosponsors. (Click for related article on official site.)

It seems like a win/win situation for everyone involved were it to become law. I find it interesting that this state hasn’t made it’s death certs open access; are they not even public domain? (This is the only thing I am confused about--unfortunately I do not know the semantics surrounding the term “open record”).

Legislators and PaHR-Access volunteers use Open/Public record interchangably. I am aware that there is an important difference in the words in some settings, but they seem to refer to the same thing here - the goal is simply allowing non-vital-records-office-employees to search the records.
The PA Health Dept. has this to say about the situation at their website: "Pennsylvania law protects and restricts the release of vital records; as such, vital records are not public records and cannot be searched online... IMPORTANT INFORMATION REGARDING RIGHT-TO-KNOW LAW: Death certificates maintained by the Division of Vital Records are not public certificates and, therefore, cannot be released under the provisions of Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know-Law."

I feel like the state library & archives getting their death certs’ name/date data up on family search for free should have them banging on the governor’s door; however, they’ve been cut so bad from the budget that they probably can’t afford to do much of anything past operations in their current state of restructure, and I’m sure you’ve encountered this.

I'm a little frustrated as I think about the political problems of the PA budget. I suppose that frustration is among all PA citizens. My theory is that if something needs to be done, do it. When you have enough genealogists wanting these records you have a workforce larger than most people dare imagine. They would gladly volunteer countless hours at no cost to PA. I'd come make the changes myself if they'd let me.

What is PA’s (archives, library, legislature) primary conflict with the bill? Is it a case of “we’ve always done it this way,” or do certain people have specific problems? Also, wonder if it is a simple case of backlog, as mentioned above. The National PAHR bill http://www.archivists.org/pahr/ has died in the backlog of the house floor, despite heavy Senate support, for the past three sessions, I believe. This new session will be the fourth try, but the House majority under Eric Cantor is devoted to reducing federal spending http://majorityleader.house.gov/ and an agenda of impassioned budget cutting no matter the social costs.

Those who have contacted the Health Dept. last session and the previous session have been told of concerns such as the following:
Financial, Identity theft, sensitivity of information (cause of death), and social security numbers.
Volunteers at PaHR-Access have researched all of these issues and found them to be without cause.
As we have discussed, the bill proposed is designed to be low/no cost. It has also been pointed out that an index the public could search will increase orders of certificates if that is the path they choose to follow.
Health Dept. staff appear to be burdened by genealogy requests and they emphasize the inability to expedite them. It takes them 4 months expected time to process a genealogical certificate request. It seems like moving the older certificates to the PA State Archives would remove a significant burden on their staff.
All social security numbers of deceased are already free online and known as the Social Security Death Index. This tool is designed to help combat identity theft so that anyone can make sure a SSN being used is not for someone who has already passed.
On a national level, knowing the cause of death of our ancestors is recommended. Some states remove the cause of death from certificates copied for genealogy and if PA wanted to they could. I recommend that it is not removed from genealogical copies. The U.S. Surgeon General talks about the importance of people learning about their family medical history: http://www.hhs.gov/familyhistory/

I did a little work on the familyseach wiki a while back—not much, but I was impressed with it. When does everything merge?

Please browse FamilySearch.org to become familiar with the workings of FamilySearch. Historical Records can be searched from the home page. You can also browse the collections indexed or the image only collections. The FamilySearch Wiki is part of the Learn tab. They are two different technologies on the same site. The wiki discussed collections, the years they cover, where you can find them, what data is in the collection etc.

A enormous user base that can feed metadata to the original documents would be unprecedented, and an amazing use of crowdsourcing. Check out some of NARA’s recent initiatives http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus/?p=144.

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Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments.