This is a “David and Goliath” story. In this version, “David,” is Brooke Schreir Ganz, an amateur genealogist. “Goliath” is the New York City Municipal Archives. Unlike that of David and Goliath, their initial confrontation began innocuously, not in a field facing one another, but by email, from across the country.
Brooke had just begun to research her family genealogy when she left New York City for California. Not allowing distance to be a barrier to her research, she contacted New York City Municipal Archive to request the index to New York City Marriage Licenses, 1908-1929. She was willing to pay for copying costs. That was when she encountered her “Goliath.”
The NYC Municipal Archives refused her request. The Archives did, however, offer her the option of visiting the Archives to review the index on-site. She was stunned. Didn’t taxpayers of New York have a right to request these records, despite where they lived? Didn’t the taxpayers of New York pay for the creation and storage of these records? She wasn’t going to take “NO” for an answer.
The Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL) in New York State offered her the slingshot she needed. These laws ensure that the public has access to public records housed in government agencies and The New York City Municipal Archives was subject to it. Brooke informed the New York City Municipal Archives of their FOIL obligation, fully expecting them to release the records. They refused. Brooke got mad and lobbed her first “stone” at the “giant”—a Freedom of Information lawsuit. She won! The giant was vulnerable.
After receiving 48 microfilm reels from the Archives, Brooke shared the microfilms with FamilySearch.org; they digitized the films and made them accessible, free of charge, on the Family Search genealogy website (FamilySearch is a popular free genealogical website sponsored by The Church of the Latter Day Saints.).
Brooke’s initial battle with “Goliath” soon morphed into a crusade to “reclaim” all types of public records that have restricted access imposed by government agencies, libraries or archives. In 2017, her crusade led to the establishment of the not-for-profit group, Reclaim the Records (reclaimtherecords.org). Brooke serves as President of this group that now includes historians, genealogists, and open government advocates. Their mission is to identify genealogical data sets that should be in the public domain and to work to make them so.
Once Reclaim the Records identifies appropriate public records it initiates a FOIL request to the holding agency. If the agency refuses to release the requested records, as Brooke had done in her initial fight, a Freedom of Information lawsuit is filed. To date, Reclaim the Records has successfully reclaimed more than 25 million records from six states and the federal government.
Once reclaimed and digitized (the digitization process is not done by Reclaim the Records), the records are made freely available to the public on the Internet Archive (archive.org). The records are also reposted to all major genealogy websites (some of which require a paid subscription).
The work of Reclaim the Records is totally transparent. Their website chronicles their work, including email exchanges, court filings and court decisions. It is both entertaining and instructive. For example, they have dubbed one of their current lawsuits, “the single stupidest lawsuit that our organization has ever had to file.” Once again, it is targeted at the New York City Municipal Archives, the focus of Brooke’s first FOIL request in 2015. Since that initial lawsuit, Reclaim the Records has successfully reclaimed, from the Municipal Archives, the 1924 List of Registered Voters and the NYC Geographic Birth Index from the Archives with little fanfare. Given their past success, there was every reason to believe that the Archives understood the law.
However, when a request for the Brooklyn (Kings County) “Old Town” Records (143 microfilm reels) from the New York Municipal Archives was filed, the FOIL request was refused... The Archives reasoning: “The records are publicly available.” In actuality, the records are available, but only onsite. FOIL requires them to be accessible to anyone requesting them. And in this case, none of these records are available anywhere else, including paid genealogy websites.
The records themselves contain a cornucopia of information dating from the Dutch Colonial period, 1670-1898: marriage, birth, and death records, tax assessments, military draft notices, deeds and mortgages, and manumission papers for enslaved New Yorkers, among others. In other words, they are a rich and varied record of New York’s early history.
Reclaiming the Records filed their eighth Freedom of Information lawsuit to gain access to these valuable records. There is little reason to believe, given the success of the previous seven lawsuits, that Reclaim the Records will not win. Moreover, it is often the case that the City of New York (i.e., taxpayers) may be required to pay attorney fees!
The basic mission of Reclaim the Records appears boldly on their website: “We want our records back. And we get them!” A glance at Reclaim the Records “To Do List” is long and varied. Clearly, there are many “giants” to be slayed.
Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com. Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.