The Records Preservation and Archives Committee (RPAC) is a joint committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
Records are the lifeblood of genealogical research. It is crucial that the genealogical community work together to ensure both the preservation of these vital resources and our accessibility to them because we face a variety of threats to preservation and access at every level of government: local, state, and national.
Role of TRPAC
TxSGS participates in this critical mission and network through our own Texas Records Preservation and Archives Committee (TRPAC).
The role of the TRPAC Chair is outlined in our Bylaws:
Texas Records Preservation and Archives Committee Chair (TRPAC) shall: advise the President, Executive Committee, Board and membership on issues related to records preservation and access and how well the Society is meeting its local, state and national records preservation and access objectives; be the Texas representative to the National RPAC; be responsible to the President; and perform other duties and responsibilities as assigned by the President and the Board.
What are some of the threats to access and preservation?
- Closure of Social Security Death Index: The various bills pending before Congress range from closing the records for a few years to eliminating the SSDI permanently.
- Potential for future efforts to impose the national “Model Vital Records Act” in Texas and close vital records for extraordinarily long periods
- Local officials removing records from public access in the name of security,
- Loss through neglect, intentional destruction, or lack of funds for preservation,
- Inadequate facilities
- Denial of access due to:
- privacy or security concerns,
- lack of staffing,
- misinterpretation of restrictions on access to specific records,
- legal interpretations,
- misguided rules.
- Apathy from those of us who need and use the records.
What is TxSGS doing to battle these threats?
Social Security Death Index
TSGS alerted its members and partner societies to the threat to the SSDI notifying them of the national petition to stop identity theft and save public access to the SSDI. We also suggested they contact their elected officials to offer our advice on the issue. The March 2012 Stirpes published an article by Dee Dee King, “SSDI Access: Implications for Genealogists and Family Historians,” described the issues surrounding the SSDI in detail. The threat to SSDI remains real. Numerous bills pending before the US Congress would restrict access or close the SSDI permanently. The national RPAC is very active in combating the current threats to the SSDI. They’ve issued an SSDI call to action kit to help educate and mobilize the genealogical community: http://www.fgs.org/rpac/sddi-call-to-action-kit/.
Closing Vital Records — House Bill 3252 by Representative John Zerwas (Fort Bend County) would have closed Texas birth records for 125 years and Texas death records for 50 years
Under current Texas law, birth and death records now become public information 75 years after a birth and 25 years after a death. Proponents of the bill believed that closing birth and death records for 125 and 50 years will prevent identity theft and fraud. TSGS leadership actively opposed this legislation. Four TSGS leaders testified, on behalf of all TSGS members, before the House Public Health Committee about our concerns about HB 3252. During the testimony, we were able to make persuasive arguments about the threats raised by the bill. An alert issued by TSGS of the threat posed by this legislation resulted in TSGS members and members of partner societies contacting legislators with their concerns. The result: HB 3252 never made it out of committee.
Recording Death Information on Birth Certificates — House Bill 3253 by Representative John Zerwas (Fort Bend County) requires the recording of death dates on decedents’ birth certificates
Under current Texas law, the Bureau of Vital Statistics is required to record the death date on the birth certificate of decedents who are 55 years or younger when they die. HB 3253 changes the law to require the recording of death dates on the birth certificates on all decedents, regardless of age. TSGS leadership testified before the House Public Health Committee in favor of this change. The result: HB 3253 passed the legislature and is now Texas law.
Local genealogical societies can play a vital role in the preservation of and access to county records. Committee member Kenneth Booth has been working with the Victoria County Clerk and Victoria Historical Society to assist the clerk in providing better access and preservation. Although a lack of funds has stymied efforts so far, Kenneth is optimistic that their efforts may provide a template for other societies to offer their assistance to local officials.
At the TSGS conference in November 2012, over 50 participants joined in a lively discussion of how the genealogical community can come together to ensure that we will have the records we need available to us in the future. Ideas that came out of the meeting demonstrated the unique role that TSGS can play in sharing useful practices and objective information with our members and partner societies. The group heard from several TSGS members who are working with local officials. They demonstrate both the issues we face and they ways in which the genealogical community can assist. Kenneth Booth described his work with the Victoria County Clerk. Leona Booth described her work with Victoria College to preserve original Jackson County records, which are housed at the regional depository there. Lisa Mahler told of the concerns of the Borden County Judge about inadvertently making records available that should be closed. Archivist Amanda Pape, Coordinator of Archives and Special Services at Tarleton State University, explained her role as an archivist at a regional repository holding numerous original county records. All of these members illustrated the varied issues relating to local records in Texas.
Where can you learn more about the threats and issues involving records access and preservation?
There are groups across the country working to improve and ensure open access to records. We can learn from their efforts. Check out the information on these websites.
National Records Preservation and Access Committee: A consortium of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, National Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, the Board for the Certification of Genealogists, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, among others. Its mission is “To advise the genealogical community on ensuring proper access to historical records of genealogical value in whatever media they are recorded, on means to affect legislation, and on supporting strong records preservation policies and practices.” They maintain a blog providing information on national preservation and access issues as well as spreading the word about what’s going on in the states. They’ve also researched and created several papers and brochures on records access. Examples: “Open Access to Public Records: A Genealogical Perspective,” 2009 and “The Case for Open Public Records,” 2013 Available for download at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/publications/.
Massachusetts Genealogical Council: This group is an umbrella organization of genealogists, historical researchers, and all those concerned about records preservation and open access to public records in Massachusetts. Although focused on the state of Massachusetts, this group has researched and created an impressive number of papers detailing the issues related to records preservation and access as well as compiling information on the most effective ways to advocate for these issues. Example: “Framing a Discussion on Vital Records Access.” Cochituate, MA, 2009. Download at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/publications/.
Association of Professional Genealogists, Keep Genealogical Records Open Workgroup (KGROW): “The Case for Open Public Records.” 2008. Available for download at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/publications/
Genealogical Privacy Project: Contributors represent various viewpoints on the tension between records access and privacy.
McBurney v. Young, No. 12-17 (U.S. Supreme Court, 29 April 2013). Latest decision on the power of states to restrict access to information. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-17_d1o2.pdf
Brophy, Alfred L. “The Ancient Rights of the Graveyard.” August 2005. Social Science Research Network. Available for download at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=777747