Reclaim The Records is going after EVERY SINGLE DIGITIZED RECORD at the New York City Municipal Archives, to put them all online, for free public use #usa #records


Reclaim The Records is once again taking on the New York City Municipal Archives, but this time we're asking for ALLLLL THEIR RECORDS. All of them.
We want every historical New York City birth, marriage, and death record. Every scan of an old will or deed or tax assessment list or military recruit list. Every everything! We're going to get them and then put them all online for free, for everyone to use. No fees, no restrictions.

We're sick of the Archives' illegal and immoral "licensing" and "permissions" con job restricting public access to historical public records. We're mad that they're continually ignoring the people and patrons they're supposed to be serving.

And so, we just filed a big brand new Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the city, and you can read all about it here, in very copious detail:
This would mean that all of the genealogy websites you know and love, both commercial and non-profit, large and small, as well as individual researchers or teachers or journalists or anybody, would finally have access to download and re-upload and re-publish every single historical New York City vital record, for free. Millions and millions of them! And unlike the Archives, we won’t have any dumb “Mother, May I?” permission slips or shady licensing fees to line our pockets. It’s all gonna be free, forever.
We're also going to be going after much of the Archives' microfilm holdings, and eventually some of their never-before-scanned-or-photographed paper and book holdings. And early next year, we're planning on launching a groundbreaking kind of new lawsuit against the agency, asking to get genealogists' money back, for all the "licenses" they've had to pay out for years, for the use of old public domain records that the Archives has never owned and will never own. More details about that are forthcoming on our website.
Enjoy! :-)
- Brooke Schreier Ganz
President and Founder, Reclaim The Records
Mill Valley, California

Jane Foss

I strongly support this effort and tho I cant afford a donation of money I'd be happy to donate time as a volunteer in data entry or whatever is needed that I'd be capable of doing......

.jane lowenkron foss

Barbara Kenzer

I would be very happy to volunteer in any way I can for making what should have been public for a long time. My family was from New York
Barbara Kenzer 

Myrna Waters

How exciting and formidable.  Best of luck with all you do to prevent the unscrupulous from taking advantage.  The information is not theirs to control in this vile manner.  
I'd like to see the same thing happen with the New Jersey archives.  Many families were back and forth between NY & NJ and tracking them is not always easy.  Very few of the NJ archives are online.  
Myrna (Slatnick) Waters

Researching:  SLEPACK (or similar)Belarus/Bialystok area; SLATNICK/SLOTNIK (or similar) Minsk/Puchovichi area of Russia from 1905/1914 to NY & Newark,NJ and Canada;  KURZMANN Jaslo, Poland and Drohobych, Ukraine area (both formerly in what was the Galician area of Austria prior to WWI), KURTZMAN in NY/Bronx and NJ/Newark from 1905/1910, SADOWSKY (or similar) from Belarus area of Russia/Bialystok 19th century to Newark,NJ 1905 or after.

Jx. Gx.

That's wonderful news! I hope your FOIL extends to those people at the NYC Health Department, Vital Records section.  They have been so difficult to deal with.

You will be receiving a donation from me before the end of the year.

Jeff Gee


Jeff Gee wrote last week:
"That's wonderful news! I hope your FOIL extends to those people at the NYC Health Department, Vital Recordssection.  They have been so difficult to deal with."

Hi Jeff,

I'm happy to report that Reclaim the Records also has a different long-running lawsuit (filed in April 2019) in progress against the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and a few other related city agencies and officials. You are correct, they are truly one of the worst local or state government agencies to deal with when it comes to records access. Even just getting copies of very old death certificates from them, even for your own family members, even if you correctly submit all your documentation, is often a nightmare, not to mention slow. It's completely ridiculous.

So I thought you, and other people on this listserve, might want to read (or re-read) what's been going on with that lawsuit.
In that April 2019 lawsuit, we're asking the City for the first-ever public copies of ALL New York City death certificates for the years 1949-1968. That's about 1.6 million records altogether, and all of them would be open to the public if the deaths had occurred anywhere else in New York State outside the City limits. That's because the City and the State have different Departments of Health, with different rules about records access embargo timelines. But we're basically arguing that a City agency rule, even from an agency that has been granted an unusual amount of autonomy, cannot be more restrictive than an actual New York State law passed by the state legislature, such as the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
The population of New York City was about 25% Jewish during these mid-twentieth-century years, and so we think the percentage of Jewish deaths among this collection is probably close to that, so that's about 400,000 records. And most death records have multiple names on them, of course: the deceased person, the spouse if they were married, the father's name (if known), the mother's name and maiden name (if known), and the informant (often a relative). So that's probably over a million names, if you index all of them. That would make this records collection, if we win it, one of the largest totally free Jewish-American historical resources in the world.
The same lawsuit is also seeking the nullification of recently-enacted NYC Department of Health records access rules, because I guess the Department decided they didn't suck enough already and so they recently made their agency's records embargo periods even worse, now up to seventy-five years for public access to death certificates, and one hundred and twenty-five years for births. Insanity!
In contrast, I live in California where uncertified copies of birth and death records are totally open to the public, no embargo. You can all go order "informational" uncertified copies of my kids' California birth certificates from 2007 and 2010, if you want. It's really not a big deal...except in New York and a few other places, which still treat public records access like it's an unforgivable sin.
Anyway. Here's the link to the page on our website, about this particular ongoing lawsuit, originally filed in April 2019:

There's a fun Jewish genealogy connection here, too: our attorney in this case is none other than Michael Moritz, who is also very involved with several research groups at JewishGen! He put an enormous amount of hard work into our "Article 78" legal filing, which you can read here (47 pages!):
And check out the four affidavits we filed along with the Petition, from four genealogists who all consistently need access to New York City death records for very different but very important reasons: (1) kinship and legal proceedings; (2) identification and repatriation of American servicemen who died overseas during twentieth century wars; (3) applications for dual citizenship or reclamation of lost ancestral citizenship; and (4) health-related research to find and alert distant family branches to a genetic risk for cancer from inherited BRCA mutations.
Those four affidavits are linked in the "Paperwork and Court Filings" section on that same page on our website. Jewish genealogist David Bushman was the author of the affidavit about BRCA mutations necessitating better public access to death records, and I am sorry to say that Dave passed away from coronavirus infection earlier this year. The case goes on, in his memory.
- Brooke Schreier Ganz
Founder and President, Reclaim The Records
Mill Valley, California


This is so great! Will the lawsuit against the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also seek to recover the New York City death index books through 1986 that were confiscated from the New York Public Library in the dead of night? I hope so! And thanks for all you do!

Jonathan O'Donnell
New York, New York


Jonathan O'Donnell wrote:
"This is so great! Will the lawsuit against the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also seek to recover the New York City death index books through 1986 that were confiscated from the New York Public Library in the dead of night?"
Short answer: yes, but we want more than the books, and it would be handled in a separate lawsuit, and not right now, but in the near-ish future. ;-)
Longer answer: The New York City death index books that were on the shelves at the New York Public Library went up through about 1982, I think. They were, just as you say, pulled off the shelves in the dead of night, and without a public comment period, a few years ago. See below for what they looked like before they got pulled:
example of NYC death index 1981.jpg
Without these books available, the main public copy of the New York City death index is a set of old microfilms (originally created by the NYC DOH) that go only up through 1965, not through 1982, and certainly not through 2020. FamilySearch has a copy of the films, but you have to be actually onsite at one of their Family History Library locations (or using their WiFi from the parking lot) to see them, and cannot see them from home.
Those old FamilySearch films were then digitized a few years ago (without permission, presumably) by a small commercial company called (not to be confused with Vitalchek, which is the Lexis-Nexis owned company for ordering paper certificates). Vitalsearch then watermarked all the images, cut a deal with, sold them the images, and then Ancestry transcribed them all and made a database. By that time, the images were like fourth generation removed from the originals and hard to read, and so the transcriptions are not always quite right, especially the certificate numbers.
So now we finally have a mediocre text-searchable death index for New York City -- but only on a paywalled commercial website and only up through 1965, fifty-five years ago. Not okay.
(Also, Vitalsearch slapped a copyright notice in red on every single image, along with their watermarks, and just so we're all clear, that is not actually a thing. Personally, I always find it hilarious when a shady company run through a semi-anonymous Nevada LLC decides to profit off taxpayer-funded public data by simply declaring that they own it all in a way that has no actual legal backing beyond Photoshop skills and chutzpah, but maybe that's just me.)
Right after the books were pulled at the NYPL, I had two phone conversations about the situation with the then-head of the New York State Committee on Open Government (COOG). COOG is a group of attorneys in Albany, funded by the state legislature, who basically get paid to give free legal advice to both the public and to state agencies who are trying to work with the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In both of our conversations, COOG's executive director was absolutely livid at both the city for "retroactively classifying" the death index and at the NYPL and their librarians too, for allowing a government agency to come take their books instead of standing up to them. He pointed us to a number of previous Advisory Opinions that are online at COOG that we could use if we intended to go after the books legally.
So originally, we at Reclaim The Records thought great, that means we have a good shot at getting the books back! They were already created by a public agency, with public funding, and were known to be available to the public for decades. You can't retroactively make a purposely-public document not-public. "No backsies!" as the kids say. Seemed straightforward enough.
But then we realized that waitaminute, the city has all that death index data in a database, which they used to print the books in the first place. Why should we go after old paper books just to go laboriously scan them and then transcribe them or OCR them, when we can go right to the source material, the underlying database? And then we heard through the grapevine that as late as 2008, the DOH was allowing genealogists to go into their office and see the modern day death index (and the birth index, too!) on printed paper lists... And if they already made it publicly available, then...No backsies!
So, to sum up: we are definitely planning on going after the New York City birth index and death index as one of our projects in the future, but most likely not the old books -- instead, we want the entire database, in CSV or SQL or whatever format they keep it in, and we want the data up through as recently as possible. Because of rule changes at the NYC DOH we might have to limit the end date of the data request to 2008, or maybe not -- we'll have to see if we think we can make a good legal case to push that up to the present day. But having the data even through 2008 would still be a big step up from where we are now, and also would be in a native digital format.
Relevant to the news: we also know that the NYC DOH gives copies of the up-to-date death index to the NYC Board of Elections on a regular basis, to make sure that recently-dead voters are struck from the rolls. We're wondering if we can try fighting for the data once it enters the BoE instead of fighting the DOH itself... And we know there are a couple of other places where the city freely shares the data with other organizations, not all of them in the government, and those might be good entry points, too.
In any case, this fight will take a separate FOIL request, and it will very likely wind up turning into a lawsuit. And I think we would want to wrap up some of our other pending work before tackling it; we are already juggling a lot of balls (that is, lawsuits and potential lawsuits) right now. But it is definitely on our "to-do" list.
- Brooke Schreier Ganz
President and Founder, Reclaim The Records
Mill Valley, California