Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Days at the BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy

https://familyhistory.ce.byu.edu/
This is the week for the Brigham Young University Conference on Family History and Genealogy. It seems like there is a pretty good attendance this year. I have been sitting in on the classes from The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists or ICAPGen. That has been interesting. The requirements for accreditation have changed considerably over the years but they are still very challenging. The Harmon Center, where the conference is being held, has been almost entirely renovated and it is a lovely place for a conference.

I probably won't be writing much this week because of four days of conference and three presentations.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Ultimate Digital Preservation Guide, Part Seven -- Technological Challenges: Cameras


I was recently watching the documentaries about Apollo 11 moon landing and I began to notice the technology and all the things that were missing and all those we no longer use. I could write pages and pages about the changes from 1969, but I don't have to go back that far to see other major technological changes. Genealogy is certainly not immune to technological change. Theoretically, you could still do genealogical research with a pencil and a few sheets of paper. But there is an almost certain possibility, assuming you wanted to try, that you would be repeating the work of other researchers.

It has been some time now since I talked to a person who was a confirmed technological holdout. Although there are still a considerable number of people who line up at the door of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah every day it is open pulling huge suitcases full of documents and paper.

Because of my constant digitization efforts, I show up at the library with a laptop, a flash drive (thumb drive) and a smartphone with a camera. I usually forget to bring a pencil or a pen. Granted, there are still some archives and libraries that are living in the Dark Ages and prohibit cameras and even some who prohibit computers, but usually, those three things are all I need to take notes and do all my research. Because I am digitizing everything I find and entering the information into an online family tree program such as FamilySearch.org or MyHeritage.com, I am not creating any more paper files than I already have. I am moving directly from research to digital preservation. Also, all my photos are now digital and so I do not have any new paper photographs.

But realistically in this series, I have to write about paper. There are two main ways to digitize paper records: cameras and dedicated scanners. In this post, I am going to write about digital cameras as they may be used for document preservation.

Some professional-level document preservationists are never satisfied with the quality and resolution of the digitized images. Every time there is a technological change that increases the resolution of digital cameras, there is a move to make that level a new standard. It becomes difficult to believe that they put up with microfilmed images for so many years when you find out about their strict requirements. Although websites such as FamilySearch.org have explored the possibility of incorporating private digital collections, they have been stopped by the complexity of the laws governing their publication online.

One major challenge for private preservationists is finding a place that will host the digital images. I have been fortunate in finding university special collections libraries that will agree to host and preserve some of my collected items. But normally, you will find very little interest in either the paper or the digital copies outside of immediate family members.

Paying others to do the physical work of preservation and then finding some entity to host either the paper or the digital images or both can be very daunting. There is a certain amount of physical equipment you will need to do an adequate job of preservation.

From a physical equipment standpoint for preserving records, we presently have digital cameras with very high resolution that exceeds the resolution of even the highest grain photographic film. For example, Sony just announced a professional level camera body the Sony a7r IV with a 61 MP full-frame sensor. The initial retail price of the Sony a7r IV is $3,498.00, far less than an equivalent commercial digital camera with a lower resolution sensor. The Megapixel race is just beginning.

The terminology used by the manufacturers of digital cameras still has a lot of baggage from the days of photographic film. Two terms are pertinent to any discussion of the resolution of a camera whether digital or film. The two terms are Grain and ISO.

ISO is an acronym for the International Organization of Standardization that indicates the film speed or reaction time to light. Another commonly used acronym for film speed was the ASA (American Standards Association). The higher the ISO or ASA number, the more sensitive the photographic film was to light. However, there was always a trade-off. Very high ISO numbers usually resulted in grainier photographs or photographs with a loss of resolution. A fast photographic film had an ISO of 600 or even 1200. The ISO number has been applied to electronic sensors for digital cameras. Here is an example of a grainy image.


Inside a digital camera, the electronic sensor takes the place of the photographic film. The resolution of the sensor is roughly equivalent to the number of individual sensor elements measured in megapixels or one million or exactly 1,048,576 pixels. So, a 20 MP sensor has more pixel or sensor elements than a 12 MP sensor. Many consumers automatically assume that the higher the Megapixel count, the better the image. In fact, there are some physical limitations that make higher and higher Megapixel counts less important than you might think.

Many digital cameras also advertise high ISO numbers for their sensors such as an ISO of over 1500 but the inevitable trade-off is grainy photos. The new Sony A7R IV has an ISO that goes up to 102,400 far higher than was ever possible with film. With that high ISO number, you could almost take photographs in the dark, but the results are usually an increase in grain. If you want to see an interesting phenomenon, stand about five feet away from the image above and you will likely see nearly all the grains disappear.

For digital preservation, a low ISO, such as 100, is the most desirable. For this reason, it may be necessary to illuminate the items being photographed so eliminate shadows and to provide the light needed for the low ISO number. The ISO number is usually set manually on the camera by the photographer.

When you are using a camera for document preservation you need to remember that the standard used by the Library of Congress for resolution is usually measured in dots per inch or DPI. The standard right now is 300-400 DPI. How does the Megapixel (MP) count translate to DPI? Good question, it doesn't really work that way. 300 DPI is the resolution of a good computer printer. Taking this any further begins to get really complicated but I will try to simplify the differences.

There are three ways to measure optical resolution: DPI (dots per inch), PPI (pixels per inch), and LPI (lines per inch). Here is a website that will convert measurements between some of these different systems: https://www.pixelcalculator.com/ DPI and PPI are essentially the same types of measurement. LPI is used primarily by printers and some engineers. Those who are doing professional level digitization use LPI targets with graduated lines to focus their cameras. Conversion from LPI to DPI is done by multiplying by 16. For example: 150 LPI x 16 = 2400 DPI. Of course, you can change DPI to LPI by dividing the DPI number by 16. Here is one type of focus screen used in early TV broadcasts.


Surprisingly, the answer to the question of how much resolution is practical and necessary is fairly easy to understand and that is why the number 300 in DPI keeps coming up. First, we have to start with the resolution of the human eye. At a distance of one foot, the average person's eyes can only resolve details at about 89 microns the equivalent of about 300 DPI or PPI. In short, any higher resolution than about 300 DPI or PPI is lost to the human eye. This explains why the Library of Congress standard for resolution is 300 dpi.

The DPI resolution of your digital camera depends on the physical size of your output. If you want an 8.5 x 11 print at 300 DPI, you need a digital sensor that takes images at about 7-8 MP. That Sony 61 MP camera will produce about a 24 x 36-inch image at about 300 DPI. These numbers assume an ISO of about 100 which is somewhat the standard for high-quality photos with good light. When you view an image on a computer screen or TV. If you need to use PPI as the measurement. 300 DPI is about 118.11 PPI.

What does all this mean for genealogists who don't care to become professional photographers? If you are serious about using a camera for digital preservation, you need to have one that has at least a 20 MP sensor. Otherwise, stick to using a flatbed scanner. You can now buy a good 20 MP+ camera for around $500 - $600. For example, see the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III.

When you have a camera is it also a good idea to have a tripod or camera stand to hold the camera steady and in some cases, provide light. Here is one example of one type of camera stand:

https://dtculturalheritage.com/copy-stands/
There are a few more accessories that can help with your work, but there are also a lot of diy projects that can are online as substitutes for spending money.

If you are merely uploading documents to an online service, such as FamilySearch.org Memories section, you will need to look at some of the photos already online and see that hardly anyone cares enough about the quality of their images to worry you too much. Remember one basic rule. You can't get any better quality than your eyes can see.

Here is the summary of my suggestions for digital preservation using a camera:

  • Use a digital camera with a 20 MP sensor but use what you have instead of waiting to digitize your records
  • Find a way to stabilize the camera at a fixed distance from the artifacts or documents being digitized
  • Set the exposure at 100 ISO and make sure the artifacts or documents are in focus
  • Upload the images to an online website such as FamilySearch.org Memories and attach and tag them to the appropriate ancestors
There are a lot of other things to know, such as how to use computer photo software such as Adobe Photoshop, but there are also a lot of less expensive alternatives. More coming in this long series. 


See the previous posts in this series here:

Part One: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide.html
Part Two: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide_10.html
Part Three: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide_14.html
Part Four: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide.html
Part Five: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide_10.html
Part Six: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide_25.html

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Ultimate Digital Preservation Guide, Part Six -- Deciding what to Preserve


In the years before computers became ubiquitous, we relied on either copying out the information by hand or eventually copy machines. I remember all sorts of copy methods including the Thermo-fax and Verifax. I also remember seeing my first Xerox copy machine in the University of Utah Library in 1966. Here is a short summary of the development of the Xerox photocopier from an article on Smithsonianmag.com entitled, "Making Copies."
Remarkably, xerography was conceived by one person— Chester Carlson, a shy, soft-spoken patent attorney, who grew up in almost unspeakable poverty and worked his way through junior college and the California Institute of Technology. He made his discovery in solitude in 1937 and offered it to more than 20 major corporations, among them IBM, General Electric, Eastman Kodak and RCA. All of them turned him down, expressing what he later called “an enthusiastic lack of interest” and thereby passing up the opportunity to manufacture what Fortune magazine would describe as “the most successful product ever marketed in America.” 
Carlson’s invention was indeed a commercial triumph. Essentially overnight, people began making copies at a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than anyone had believed possible. And the rate is still growing. In fact, most documents handled by a typical American office worker today are produced xerographically, either on copiers manufactured by Xerox and its competitors or on laser printers, which employ the same process (and were invented, in the 1970s, by a Xerox researcher). This year, the world will produce more than three trillion xerographic copies and laser-printed pages—about 500 for every human on earth.
You might want to read that entire article, it gives you some interesting perspectives on how photocopies came to be one of the most common products in the world.

As a result of the general availability of the technology, some genealogists have amassed huge files of photocopies. Because of the proliferation of photocopies, it is time for me to write about the issue of an original vs. a copy and from that, deciding what to preserve.

What is an original?

As I have briefly mentioned in a previous post before copy machines became available to everyone, Courts required all documents such as contracts and deeds to be presented in the form of the original, signed document. Sometimes, the major issue of the lawsuit became whether or not the document presented to the Court was "the" original. Slowly, over the years, the requirement to provide the Court with "original" documents disappeared. Now, why I repeat this is the same process that the courts followed to abandon the need for an "original" affects almost all the decisions we make as genealogists about what to preserve and what to throw away.

Let me start by asking another question if I obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate from the state agency where I was born, is the document an original? This is a trick question. For the purposes of producing an original document in court, a certified copy was considered the same as producing the original even assuming the original original was available. In Arizona, when someone dies, you have to order up to a dozen or more copies of the certified death certificate in order to close bank accounts and take other actions on the part of the deceased. I could go on with more examples but essentially the idea is that original documents are both the first or primary or earliest known examples of the documents and also unique except in those instances where the "originals" were created or executed in multiple copies.

So, do we preserve photocopies? It depends. If the photocopy is unique and the only known copy available, yes. Otherwise, not so much. How do we know if a document is an original or a unique copy? We have to make judgment calls but I would suggest that if there is any question at all about whether or not another copy of a document exists, then the document should be preserved. One way we determined originals in the court was whether the document had an original signature. But in many cases, all we had was a copy and then we had to give extra evidence to persuade the judge that our copy was reliable and essentially the same as the original.

One important point is that we should digitize all of our documents, even if some of them are copies. The controlling factor would then be whether obtaining access to the original is possible or convenient.

What this boils down to is that every document has a different history and preservation and retention should err in favor of preservation rather than destruction. But if you digitize almost everything and then you make a mistake and an original document get destroyed, you can, at least, breathe a sigh of relief and know that the information in the original has been preserved.

See the previous posts in this series here:

Part One: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide.html
Part Two: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide_10.html
Part Three: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide_14.html
Part Four: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide.html
Part Five: https://genealogysstar.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-ultimate-digital-preservation-guide_10.html

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

10% Discount Code for MyHeritage LIVE

https://live2019.myheritage.com/

I have been asked to present at the MyHeritage LIVE Conference to be held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, from September 6th to the 8th, 2019. In conjunction with my speaking assignment, I have been given the opportunity to provide a 10% discount on the price of registration. The discount promotion code is TANNER10. 

The conference will be held at the Hilton Amsterdam in the Netherlands. We are looking forward to seeing you at the conference. You can see the schedule of classes and presenters on the Conference website.

https://live2019.myheritage.com/


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Was Your Ancestor Written out of History


This post is about history and genealogy.  But before I begin, I have to note that the photo above is misleading and historically inaccurate. It is apparently a reenactment of the original event. There were no photographers waiting on the trail to take photos of the arriving pioneers. Although the arrival of the pioneers, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the Salt Lake Valley in what is now Utah, is celebrated as a state holiday in Utah on July 24th, the first scouts for the wagon train arrived on July 21st and the main wagon train arrived on July 22, the leader of the Church, Brigham Young, arrived on July 24th. So we have a traditional account, a "corrected" historical account and yes, another real account researched long after the event.

Here is a quote from a "traditional" account of the arrival from an article in the Salt Lake Tribune entitled, "This is the place for facts you might not know about Mormon pioneers," I might point out that the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper has historically been antagonistic and critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Who were the first Mormon pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley and was it on July 24? 
Paul Reeve, University of Utah • Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, scouts for the first group, arrived July 21. The first Mormon pioneers followed, on July 22, camping in the area of present day 1700 South and 500 East. The next day, they moved north and began plowing and planting. Brigham Young arrived July 24. His declaration that day was apparently a confirmation of a decision already made.
I also need to point out that the rest of the Tribune's article has some misstatements and some facts that are inaccurate or at best incomplete.

In the case of any historical accounts of the activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is no question that you have to quickly begin separating fact from intentionally contrived fiction. There is a whole catalog of "anti-Mormon" writings that are simply fabricated. These early fabrications and accusations began circulating even before the Church was established in 1830 and are still being published and circulated today by those who would attack the Church for a variety of reasons. So why did I raise the issue of the historicity of the arrival of the pioneers? Simple, it is because some of the original pioneers to arrive have been mostly written out of history.

As genealogists, we may find a "brick wall" in trying to extend a pedigree line. We often wonder why there are no records of certain individuals when so many people surrounding them seem to be well documented. One possible answer is that succeeding generations of their relatives or detractors have simply written them out of history. One example of this is pertinent to the arrival of the pioneers. Here is a quote from an article co-authored by my daughter, Amy Tanner Thiriot, and Jonathan A. Stapley, entitled, "In My Father's House Are Many Mansions, Green Flake's Legacy of Faith."
When the first company of Saints left for the Rocky Mountains, three convert families from Mississippi sent their slaves ahead with the vanguard pioneer company. The slaves, Green Flake, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay (later Wales), were to prepare homes for the families at their destination.
The article goes on to state the following
Although references company members made to the black men traveling with them were not particularly enlightened, the men were a vital part of the pioneer trek. When Brigham Young lay ill at the head of Emigration Canyon, he sent Green and others ahead to prepare the road. Green drove the first wagon into Emigration Canyon, and when Young arrived in the valley, Green had already planted crops. When James and Agnes Flake arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in October 1848, they found that Green had built them a comfortable log cabin in the South Cottonwood area of the Salt Lake Valley.
History and genealogy are replete with such examples. There are examples of pedigrees where some of the pertinent facts are intentionally omitted or changed because of the personal prejudices of the genealogist or historian. There are also pedigrees that are completely fabricated. In the case of the three black pioneers, their history was "conveniently" forgotten until recently. See "Story of Former Slave, Utah Settler Forgotten No More."

When you are copying previous historians' and genealogists' work, remember that even seemingly well-documented history or genealogy may be tainted by prejudice, hatred, or simple incompetence.

For additional information about Green Flake, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay (later Wales) see the following articles but bear in mind that not everything you might read is factual and unbiased.

“Black Slaves Were among Earliest Pioneers in Utah.” DeseretNews.com, July 22, 1997. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/573510/Black-slaves-were-among-earliest-pioneers-in-Utah.html.
Herald, Daily. “Black Pioneers.” Daily Herald. Accessed July 23, 2019. https://www.heraldextra.com/news/black-pioneers/article_f7002c1c-2996-5d43-9c87-0c74c1ab8e7b.html.
“Heritage Gateways.” Accessed July 23, 2019. http://heritage.uen.org/companies/Wc8a1ec054fc1a.shtml.
“Remembering Utah’s Forgotten Black Pioneers | KSL.Com.” Accessed July 23, 2019. https://www.ksl.com/article/46267076/remembering-utahs-forgotten-black-pioneers.
Standard-Examiner, MARK SAAL. “Utah’s Earliest Black Pioneers Almost Forgotten, but Not Completely.” Standard-Examiner. Accessed July 23, 2019. https://www.standard.net/news/local/utah-s-earliest-black-pioneers-almost-forgotten-but-not-completely/article_cce4d907-2c4f-52fe-803e-09f13d38fb7c.html.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Genealogists Face Traumatic Decisions From DNA Test Results


A Wall Street Journal article for July 20-21, 2019 entitled, "DNA Testing Creates Wrenching Dilemmas for the Family Historian" describes the dilemma of a genealogist who was confronted with DNA test results that disclosed previously unknown family members due to infidelity, adoption, and cover-ups. This type of impact from a DNA test results is usually entirely unexpected by those submitting the test. There is no need to go into the rather long and involved story from the Wall Street Journal if you have taken a DNA test or talked to a few people that have you likely have some of your own stories. One of my acquaintances not too long ago found out she had a new set of 1st cousins when one of her relatives turned out to have had multiple illegitimate children by the same person that became obvious after DNA test results became available.

The impact of these disclosures varies from mildly interesting to life-changing. What should be the genealogists' response to this situation? Well, realistically, a DNA test is just another genealogical tool. I spent an afternoon recently looking at a family where out-of-wedlock children were obvious from the paper research I did. I did not take a DNA test to come to that conclusion. Fortunately, I was not in the position of the researcher in the Wall Street Journal article. I had no disclosure to make to a living family, the people I was researching were long dead and no one would be surprised to learn of an unknown relative.

Many of these "uncomfortable" family situations have been written out of family history in the past. One such situation in my own family is still causing repercussions today when the participants have been dead for almost a hundred years or more. In one instance, a child has always been listed as a biological child, but in fact, the child was adopted. There were rumors in the family that the child was adopted but mentioning those rumors still causes a huge negative reaction from some family members. After doing some research, my daughter was finally able to find the child's biological parents, all of this without a DNA test.

What is happening with DNA tests is that the information comes quickly, with little effort, and is truly "in your face." Contacting the birth parents can open up a whole plethora of emotions and even some backlash. But I always point out that for some, finding out that they are not related to their family might be a relief. Genealogy opens doors to the most fundamental of human emotions and DNA tests are moving the previously difficult research into the realm of a trivial activity.

One thing is certain, DNA testing is here to stay. Absent some major government reaction in the form of oppressive regulations, the DNA companies will continue to distribute DNA test kits. The latest extensions of these tests include additional information about health and inheritance. This information is also readily available but has not previously been sold as a household commodity. It is inevitable that a new DNA health industry will grow where practitioners will be providing counseling and advice about the test results.

An isolated DNA test without a concurrent relationship to an extensive family tree program is practically useless. The alternative is to organize a pool of DNA tests in response to some serious paper research. But even an isolated DNA test can produce some unforeseen consequences.

I am presently in the midst of writing a very long series of articles about DNA and its history and impact on genealogy. That series will continue because there is a lot more that can and should be said.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Missouri Actively Resists Public Disclosure Laws: All Genealogists Need to Read This


I am going to reproduce the entire content of an email from Reclaim the Record. See https://mailchi.mp/reclaimtherecords/the-show-me-state-doesnt-want-to-show-missouri-birth-and-death-index?e=87d2371d01

I am begging every genealogist who spends a few minutes to read this long email account of the refusal and blatant actions of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to share this post and the quoted letter as many times as possible. I am fed up with the government lying and refusing to follow the law at all levels. We all need to take a stand on this issue in our own jurisdictions. Here is the entire explanation, you decide for yourself.

our thirty-first action-packed newsletter

WHY WON'T THE SHOW-ME STATE SHOW THEIR PUBLIC RECORDS TO THE PUBLIC?

An update on our longest-running legal battle, the fight for the first
free and public copy of the Missouri birth index and death index

Greetings from Reclaim The Records! We're that little non-profit activist group of genealogists, historians, teachers, journalists, open government advocates, and other troublemakers who fight for the release of historical and genealogical materials from government agencies, archives, and libraries.
We're writing to you today with an update on our longest-running lawsuit, a Missouri Sunshine Law case that we originally filed way back in November 2016 against the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. We're trying to get the first-ever public and free copies of the Missouri birth index for 1920(ish)-2015 and the Missouri death index for 1968-2015. We just filed for a Motion for Summary Judgment in the case, and we wanted to bring everyone up to speed on what's been going on, since it's been a while since we last talked about these records.
Fair warning: this is a long e-mail.
But if you like reading stories about the little guys (genealogy nerds! historian dorks! all volunteers!) fighting back against really blatant government malfeasance, in a case that has already won some national-level attention and even some awards, you're probably gonna like this one.

Part I: A little backstory

Back in early 2016, when we at Reclaim The Records were stlll baby activists with only two Freedom of Information lawsuits under our belt, and before we had formally incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, we asked the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) if we could have a copy of their state birth index and death index. This way, genealogists and historians and journalists could all use the data in our research.
Most other states make this kind of basic vital records index data freely available, sometimes in books or on microfilm, but increasingly in online sources. To their credit, Missouri does put their old death certificates online if they're more than fifty years old, and those certificates have been indexed by volunteers and turned into a searchable database hosted on a state website. And that's great! But for more recent years of the death index, and for almost all births after 1910, which is when vital records started being kept at the state level, there was almost nothing available for researchers to use, not even an index. And that was really frustrating.
So, just to be clear: we weren't asking for any actual certificate copies, just some lists of names and dates. And we thought this would be uncontroversial -- because Missouri's own law says that this name-and-date index data is not restricted and may be disclosed upon request:
Screenshot of Missouri laws about vital records
Well, that seems pretty straightforward, right? And so we blithely made our two Sunshine Law requests, one asking for the birth index listing and one asking for the death index listing.
And initially, the people at the Missouri DHSS said...yes! They agreed that yes, we could get this simple database export of names and dates...
...for an estimated cost of approximately $1.5 MILLION DOLLARS and several YEARS of twenty-four-hours-a-day work by their staff.
Screenshot of invoice from Missouri DHSS
(Can you imagine what we thought when we first saw that e-mail arrive? 😱)
This astonishing cost estimate and time estimate for a simple text database export was so ridiculous, and so incredibly out of line with other government agencies' behavior, that it actually netted Missouri's DHSS two major "honors" that year. Thanks to our advocacy work, DHSS was awarded the "Outrageous Fee Award" in the 2017 "Foilies" from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (the EFF), whose criteria for inclusion is "Recognizing the Year’s Worst in Government Transparency". And also thanks to our advocacy, DHSS was named as a finalist for the prestigious and satiric 2017 Golden Padlock Award from the journalist group Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), "for extraordinary efforts keeping population statistics from the population".
Clearly, we were going to need some help with these Sunshine Law requests. We hired Bernie Rhodes of Lathrop and Gage, a well-known media law and First Amendment attorney based in Missouri. We had Bernie take the lead on all our conversations and negotiations with DHSS from that point forwards. And with his help, and a little open source info-gathering that we did by cold-calling Missouri's database vendor's tech support phone number (no, really!), we finally got DHSS to concede, in writing, that the actual cost estimate for a copy of the birth index and death index should have been more like $5,000, not $1.5 million.
A minor mistake, happens all the time, surely you understand.
But we pushed back on DHSS again, and explained that actually, the simple database dump of the death index and birth index could probably be done for something like $500 in labor costs, plus maybe a little more if they included the price of a USB drive and the shipping costs. And we were willing and able to pay.
And it was only then, after many months of back-and-forth e-mails and calls and estimate revisions, that DHSS suddenly said that they had "decided" not to provide this public info, that they thought they had the legal right to say no, that they were allowed to have discretion in their disclosure, and it was coincidentally just when we had gotten the costs reduced to a tiny, tiny fraction of their initial estimate.
Gosh, that sure was convenient timing!
It was also illegal. The Missouri Sunshine Law says a government agency has to (1) approve or deny a Sunshine Law request in the first three days of its receipt, not many months later after already approving it in writing and even revising their invoices and estimates multiple times, and (2) the agency must also provide their legal reasoning why a request should be rejected.
So, we (via Bernie) wrote DHSS a very nice letter and explained to them in detail why they were very, very wrong, and we did warn them that we would sue. Here is that letter. It's very straightforward. But DHSS never bothered to reply to the letter at all.
And so, as often happens in these sorts of stories where we at Reclaim The Records run up against a recalcitrant government agency who doesn't like providing public info to the public, WE SUED THEM. πŸ₯³
So that's the highlights of the backstory. For more specific details, check out our thirteenth newsletter, which we sent out that same November.

Part II: Discovery

After we filed our lawsuit in Cole County in late 2016, the state of Missouri bounced our case around to at least four different Assistant Attorneys General throughout all of 2017-2018, wasting everyone's time as each new attorney had to get up to speed on all the case documents before suddenly moving on. Granted, Missouri's Assistant Attorneys General were also very busy with some other Sunshine Law cases in that same time period, ones which made national news.
Meanwhile, DHSS' staff sat for depositions twice, turned over a bunch of agency e-mails and meeting notices and paperwork and other materials to us in discovery, and withheld some others.
And we found some really interesting information in there.
Like this one, an e-mail from Garland Land, the former State Registrar of Missouri, dated July 21, 2016. DHSS' staff had reached out to Land for advice about how to handle our Sunshine Law requests. And he wrote back to them, and gosh, it sure seems like he was really not a big fan of that whole "transparency in government" thing:
Screenshot of e-mail from Garland Land to DHSS staff
Did you guys get all that?
The former State Registrar advised DHSS' staff to try to force us to accept "mounds of paper" copies, rather than the real digital database file which is what the Missouri Sunshine Law requires be provided, when such a database is already available. πŸ™„ Can you imagine how much paper and printer toner it would take to print out an entire state vital records index? It sure seems like the only reason that someone would even suggest such a silly and environmentally wasteful thing is if they were trying to make it the information functionally unusable.
And then Land also told DHSS to make Reclaim The Records submit each date of the index day-by-individual-day, rather than accepting a date range in plain English. πŸ˜’ In other words, we were supposed to make one request for January 1, 1920, one for January 2, 1920, and so on... Again, this seems needlessly nitpicky, without a legal rationale, only designed to slow down the request and production of this index information to the public.
And then Land also told DHSS to reject the request and "require them to take you to court". 😠 Now this part is just gross. It's a flat-out denial, but one based on strategy rather than the law, clearly hoping that we did not know our rights under the Sunshine Law and that we did not we have the stomach or the financial wherewithal to find and hire a attorney and file a lawsuit against them.
And finally came the cherry on top of the ice cream cone: Land also advised DHSS to GO CHANGE THE LAW ITSELF. 🀬
(Also, in what possible universe would any "national geneological [sic]...expert" ever testify against the public release of a basic state vital records index?!)

Part III: Trying to change the law instead of following it

And yes, we found out that these folks at DHSS did try to change the state law! Luckily, they failed, at least so far.
Yes, that's right, rather than comply with their own law that clearly states that names and dates of people who were born or died in the state "may be disclosed upon request"Missouri's own Department of Health tried to get their state legislature to change the law, to close off all future public access to the state birth index and death index, the same kind of data that is routinely and freely published by other states, including by their surrounding neighbor states.
Luckily, the Missouri State Legislature refused to go along with the scheme.
It's interesting to note, just as a contrast, that during the same exact time period that the Department of Health in Missouri was freaking out and breaking the Sunshine Law and even trying to change their own state vital records law, the Department of Health in Missouri's next-door-neighbor state Oklahoma was taking the opposite approach! They were opening up their index data, making it moreavailable to the public. In January 2017, Oklahoma created and published a terrific new website called OK2Explore, with freely searchable birth and death indices for the public to use, to help people locate family members and easily order vital records certificate copies, if they were eligible to receive one. Nice job, Oklahoma!
Oklahoma even has some extra information available in their state vital records indices that Missouri's indices do not have, including extra helpful database fields for gender, certificate number, and the county name, to help disambiguate between different individuals with common names. But the only thing Missouri's indices would allow, if they were provided to us, is surname, given name, and date, and that's it.
And yet Missouri was making like Chicken Little and claiming that the sky would fall and everyone's privacy would be destroyed if even this most basic state index were ever put on the Internet.
But what's really interesting is that Missouri has been claiming in their legal paperwork that they already have some right to withhold this basic public data from the public, which is the rationale they gave our attorney when they suddenly denied our requests after months of discussions. If that's true, if they already have that legal right, then why would they suddenly sneak around and try to lobby their legislature to change their own state law? πŸ€”

Part IV: The Registrars Strike Back

By the way, Garland Land is not just another former or current State Registrar or archives director trying to explicitly subvert a state Freedom of Information Law or Sunshine Law. No, unfortunately, that's incredibly common behavior these days.
No, see, Land is also the former executive director of a national organization called NAPHSIS and he worked as a consultant to them after leaving his job as the Missouri State Registrar. You might have heard of NAPHSIS as the people lurking behind the scenes on many of the recent nationwide attempts to sharply restrict public access to our vital records and yes, even just the basic indices to vital records, as happened recently in New York City, in the District of Columbia, etc. What you might not know is that while NAPHSIS goes around to these jurisidctions trying to clamp down on public access to vital records data, they have been simultaneously monetizing that exact same data for their own organization's profit. They sell exclusive access to some of this public vital records data to big companies around the world through a "product" of theirs called EVVE-FOD, while they also work to change laws and regulations to deny it to the American public!
We at Reclaim The Records are going to have a lot more to say about NAPHSIS and their "records cartel" in the coming years. They deserve far more public scrutiny and exposure, and we intend to deliver it. But we'll save all that fun for another newsletter...
And in another interesting coincidence, a former president of this same organization NAPHSIS is...Stephen Schwartz. You might remember his name from our twenty-ninth newsletter, because we're currently suing him in another one of our ongoing lawsuits, in New York City over the city's abitrary and capricious rulemaking that slammed shut access to historical birth and death records in New York City, far beyond the rules for the rest of the country, or even the rest of New York State.
But Schwartz briefly shows up in this Missouri Sunshine Law case, too! Because in our discovery, we also got the e-mails and calendar notices of Missouri's currentState Registrar, Craig Ward, and we found out he was reaching out to Schwartz and to several other State Registrars across the country by e-mail and by phone, seeking dirt on Reclaim The Records. πŸ™ƒ
We got their e-mails and we got their calendar invites. And we even got a copy of an e-mail from Schwartz, who was then the Registrar of New York City, congratulating Ward on his Department's decision to deny these Sunshine Law requests for public copies of the two indices. Ugh.
But you know what, we at Reclaim The Records have decided to take all this as a kind of back-handed compliment about our work, and our effectiveness at releasing public data. These guys wouldn't be talking about us if they weren't worried. After all, BeyoncΓ© said it best: "you know you 'that b$%*h' when you cause all this conversation."

Part V: We find a possible motive

And they were right to be worried about us, because then we found some more fun stuff in DHSS' e-mails in discovery. How fun, you ask?
Like, oh, that DHSS HAS BEEN SELLING MISSOURI RESIDENTS' DATA FOR YEARS. The very same data that they were now denying to us, to the public.
Yes. Selling. Really.
Here are their official rate sheets (click on the images for larger versions):
Screenshot of Missouri fee schedule, page 1 of 2Screenshot of Missouri fee schedule, page 2 of 2
This meant we suddenly had a possible motive as to why DHSS didn't want to fulfill our perfectly reasonable Sunshine Law requests, first by quoting us an astronomical and unsupportable price ($1.5 million!) meant to deter us, then by writing internally about possible ways to slow down the production of the documents like printing them all out on paper or requiring dates to be provided one-by-one, and then finally by blocking our requests entirely when we called them out...
They wanted the revenue. If we at Reclaim The Records get the Missouri state birth index and death index and we put it online for free -- and we at Reclaim The Records always make all the historical records we get totally free for public use, no paywalls or usage agreement or copyrights or anything -- then Missouri would probably not be able to make any money selling that same data to researchers and epidemiologists in future years. DHSS would lose their nice little ongoing revenue bump for their agency's budget.
And if you look at those fee schedule images closely, you'll notice that DHSS is even selling data that is far more invasive that the simple name-and-date index lists we had asked about for genealogical purposes. It sure looks like DHSS is selling things like linked lists of all pregnancies born to Missouri women, and even lists of in-state birth defects.
That all sounds a little, well, creepy. Maybe some journalist should ask them more about this?
In any case, DHSS staff eventually admitted to our attorney in their depositions that they had sold this kind of birth-and-death data, the exact type we were asking for, including requests spanning multiple dates, many times before we came along asking for it too. And yet they turned down our request. So weird, right?
But wait, there's more!

Part VI: They padded the salaries, not just the hours

While deposing the DHSS staff about this case, our intrepid attorney Bernie Rhodes noticed something amazing. DHSS had originally quoted us that crazy-high price, $1.5 million for a database dump, because they said it would take many, many hours to individually write each separate program for each separate date and then run them all, one by one.
Now, we did manage to get DHSS to concede that no, it shouldn't really take that long to export this data if you just ran a date range search instead of searching each individual date one at a time. But Bernie noticed something else wrong with DHSS' estimates, something that we hadn't thought about.
Under most state Freedom of Information laws, a requestor can only get charged the actual hourly rate of the lowest-paid person on a government agency's staff who is capable of fulfilling the request: making the copies, programming the database export, whatever. In Missouri, it's very similar: the requestor gets charged the average of the salaries of all the people in the lowest-paid position on staff that is capable of doing the work.
And DHSS told us that hourly rate of the people on their staff who could conceivably do all this database programming and data export for us. They even told us that number multiple times, as they kept refining the estimate. But...they lied.
Bernie figured out that DHSS had done two things wrong. First, rather than taking the average salary of the lowest-paid staff category who could possibly do the work, DHSS took the “average” and the “maximum” rate of pay of the highest-paidclass and averaged those numbers.
Which, yeah, that really doesn't make any sense. Could just be a mistake, though, right?
But then Bernie found that DHSS had also rolled some weird "fringe benefits" calculations into this already-incorrect hourly rate. DHSS added an "indirect allocation" of general administrative expense factor of 20.9%, they added a "network" charge, they added a "server" charge, and so on. This bizarro calculation just about doubled the hourly rate that DHSS quoted to us in their estimates. So DHSS was not just inflating the hours needed to get all the data exported, they inflated the hourly salaries that we, the public, would have to pay them, too.
And that's definitely not allowed under the Sunshine Law.
(Had we actually paid all this extra money for the work, by the way, it would presumably have gone right into DHSS' pockets...uh, we mean their budget. But you probably guessed that one by now.)
But Bernie figured it out, and busted them. Bernie did the math! Be like Bernie.

Part VII: Presenting our Motion for Summary Judgment

So! After all these shenanigans and delays, we finally went and filed our Motion for Summary Judgment about two months ago, in late May. This means that we think the uncontested facts of this case, the ones taken from DHSS' own deposition transcripts and documentation and e-mails and actions, are really, really in our favor.
And now we're going to show you guys our legal paperwork, so you can read the files, and share them, and give your opinions, legal or genealogical or otherwise, on this whole wacky, shady, ridiculous story.
First up, here's our actual Motion for Summary Judgment, which is twenty-five pages long. This is the meat of the thing, dry and factual, because it's sticking to statements and topics that even DHSS has agreed are not in dispute. It's still kind of shocking to see it all laid out so plainly, though, even without the commentary.
Second, here is our "Suggestions in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment" documentThis one is much more entertaining! It's a thirty-six page legal document with awesome sub-headings like:
  • "The secret plan to deny Ms. Ganz’s request"
  • "Looking for dirt on Reclaim the Records"
  • "DHSS executes the secret plan"
  • "DHSS’ hourly charges are double the “average hourly rate of pay”"
...and so on. You can really tell that Bernie and his associate Taryn Nash genuinely enjoyed writing this one up for the judge.
Third, here is our founder/president/chief troublemaker's own affidavit, from Brooke Schreier Ganz, because her name is the one listed on this case along with Reclaim The Records as an organization. This is the document where we try to explain to the judge that we are not pursuing these vital records indices frivolously or for profit, and that we are all Very Serious Genealogy Nerds. That's why it goes into so much detail about Brooke's background, Reclaim The Records' background, and also guest-stars the impeccable bios and CV's of our entire awesome board of directors.
And fourth, here is the affidavit of Bernie himself. Because we had retained him as our attorney so early in the process of all our back-and-forth phone and e-mail discussions with DHSS (phew, it's a good thing we did that), he was therefore able to attest to much of their behavior firsthand.
Please take a look at these documents, but most especially the second one, and let us know what you think of them, whether it's on our Facebook page, or through @ReclaimTheRecs at Twitter, or whether you just share them amongst your genealogy and journalist friends. Help us get the word about about this incredible story to the entire genealogist, historian, and open records community!
And by the way, you're also welcome to repost this entire newsletter, word for word, anywhere you like, including in your own genealogy or historical society newsletters or e-mails or whatever, as long as you credit us and it's non-commercial. (As you can see from the very bottom of this e-mail, all of our newsletters are under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. We really do like sharing!)

Part VIII: What comes next?

So, what's next? Well, the Missouri Attorney General's Office are the people who now have to defend their Department of Health's behavior in the lawsuit. And since we submitted our Motion for Summary Judgment in late May, they have so far continued their grand tradition of being totally disorganized while also attempting to delay justice. They just had a motion to switch the attorneys assigned to the case again! That's, like, the fifth or sixth Assistant Attorney General attached to this case so far? Maybe? We lost count a while back. For reference, we first started this case way back under the former state Attorney General Josh Hawley, and he doesn't even work in their office anymore, he's now off being a United States Senator.
And here's a news article about our case from Missouri journalist Tony Messenger talking about Josh Hawley's hypocritical behavior in our case. Tony Messenger, by the way, just won the Pulitzer Prize a few months ago for his work at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He's covered stories about the Missouri Sunshine Law for years, it's one of his specialties.
And here's what he wrote about Reclaim The Records' case for the birth index and death index a few days ago, on Twitter:
Screenshot of Tweet from Tony Messenger
So now we have to sit tight and wait for the state to produce their response to our Motion for Summary Judgment, and then see what new shenanigans and creative excuses they supply. And then we should get a few weeks to make our reply to that response. And then we wait for the judge to rule, and hope that we will finally get a chance to reclaim these important records.
We're also asking the judge for the reimbursement of our attorneys fees. Even if we do win the case, even if we get the birth index and death index, we still might not get our fees awarded, it's not a sure thing. From reading the news it does seem like attorneys fees have been awarded more frequently in these cases lately, but that might just be because Missouri's cases keep making national news for being so incredibly blatant about their state government officials breaking the Sunshine Law.
We're also trying for a bit of a long shot, and we're also asking for fines to be awaded, on top of our legal fees. Missouri is one of the only states in the US where their state Freedom of Information law allows for the possibility of fines being awarded, up to $5,000 per Sunshine Law request, if it can be proven that a government agency truly withheld the records purposely and maliciously, not accidentally or in a good faith disagreement.
For obvious reasons, we think the case qualifies! But we're aware that it's very rare to also get awarded fines. It's still worth it to try, though.
And if we win? Well, then we'll go put all of this data online for everyone, for free, just like we always do! No paywalls, no logins, no copyrights, no usage agreement, none of that stuff.
And then we -- genealogists, historians, teachers, journalists, everyone -- will be able to do more historical research right from our own homes. We'll finally be able to do a quick search and find out whether or not a certain John Doe or Jane Doe even existed in the state of Missouri's vital records at some point. You may or may not have the right to order a copy of that certificate, depending on how recent the record is and how closely you are related to the person, but at least you'll have a finding aid to determine whether or not the record exists in the first place.
Now, it's also possible that we might not win this Motion for Summary Judgment. But if not, it's okay! If that's the case, then we'll just move on to a trial, no big deal.
See, we at Reclaim The Records are totally determined to see this case through. A state's birth index and death index are PUBLIC RECORDS and they belong to the PUBLIC. And they are certainly not meant to be some exclusive revenue source for state government agencies to secretly SELL to others, and/or to boost their own budget, while simultaneously denying a copy of the very same documents and data to the public.

Part IX: And here is the part where you can help us

And that is our update on our Missouri case. We at Reclaim The Records do this kind of work in Missouri, and in other states, because it just needs to be done. We want our records back!
And you can help us continue our records reclamation work, including in new states and cities, with your donation to Reclaim The Records. We're an IRS-recognized 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and your donations are tax-deductible in the United States to the extent allowed by law. Everyone on our board of directors is a volunteer. We use the funds we raise to do things like hire tireless attorneys, like Bernie Rhodes, to dig in and do this kind of work.
And as you can see, in the course of pursuing these old genealogical and historical records, sometimes we accidentally wind up muckraking and exposing some problems with local governments, too.
If you want laws to be followed instead of ignored, if you want public records returned to the public for public use, then this is one way you can help do that. And we thank you very much for your continued support!


Phew. We warned you guys this was a long e-mail! Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Coming very, very soon from us at Reclaim The Records: we're putting MILLIONS OF BRAND NEW TOTALLY FREE RECORDS ONLINE ALL SUMMER LONG, YAAAAAAY! We have an enormous backlog of new data collections from various city and state archives, all going online very soon! And we didn't even have to sue anyone for these new records, which was kind of a nice change. 😁