Article by R.T. Briles
Curator, Briles Information Network
The Internet is a wonderful place. It’s a great place to indulge into the world of the unknown and to expand your mind in a vast array of topics such as news, sports, weather, and yes love. The interaction with the net has grown from text-based sites to massive invasion of video magnets such as My Space and You Tube. The World Wide Web is at your feet with a click of a mouse.
The Web has also played an essential role in the research of family history. Rootsweb.com, Ancestry.com, and of course this site has offered visitors an avenue to investigate and learn more about their genealogical tides to the world. Another key ingredient to promoting genealogy research and the preservation of family history is the access to vital records. In most counties, the Register of Deeds is responsible for maintaining and securing the precious records for birth, death, marriage, and land deeds. In most cases, access to these records is easy and you don’t have to pay a dime to view or request certain records. The ROD’s usually charge a minimal fee for uncertified copies and an often-expensive fee for registered copies. The bigger counties even have computers in the office to view and print off scanned copies of the records such as the ones stated above.
Some counties have even upgraded the access for vital records by offering them on-line such as Guilford County Register of Deeds in Greensboro, NC…well up until the end of June that is! Guilford County had the best web site to access vital records that I’ve seen since the BIN began in 1996. The site allowed access to birth, death, and marriage index records that listed the name and date of birth or death, the father’s name, and the information for the book and page number for the recorded record. And of course, the access was free of charge and required no additional software. Guilford County’s vital records site gave instant access and saved thousands of hours of legwork and additional time spent in their office. So what happened? Why this long dreaded story about a silly web site? The Guilford County Register of Deeds, mainly Jeff Thigpen, caved in under pressure and removed the access to the records citing identity theft issues. HUH? What? Identity theft issues regarding the dead? The site offered by the county was in place before Thigpen came into office and this is in no way a bash on him, in fact, Thigpen even upgraded the software for a better view of the records. I don’t understand why the dead have an expectation of privacy especially when ANYONE can walk into ROD office and view the records and "document" the decedents date of birth and Social Security Number (you couldn’t access the SSN online).
I will concede one thing here before I continue with my vivid opposition to removing the access to the site. Birth records, which do contain valuable information, should be limited in access. My main profession is a police officer and I do understand the concern with identify theft and access to information for the living…that’s right, the living only! Protect it, lock it away, and throw away the key! Access to this information should be limited, both in person and on the web. However, these records are in fact public record and until our legislators change the laws and restrict access to them, then all records should be accessible in one form or another. This leads me back to the vital records for folks that have passed on to another world. Death records should always be public record and should be accessible to everyone! Dead people have no expectation of privacy and their identity no longer needs to be protected because dead people can’t be a victim to any theft. An unnamed employee of the Guilford County Register of Deeds recently told me that Jeff Thigpen received so many complaints about the access that he had no choice but to remove the site. But yet the access remains in place to view any record in person and without any employee checking to see who is viewing the records. Why? Because vital records are public record and access is not restricted in person. Ok, so I must now accept that I can’t sit in my lazy chair and access the information that I need for genealogy research. I accept the fact that I must get up and drive to the local office and view the records in person. This little set back will not hinder me in continuing my love for genealogy. Wait a second Toto the train isn’t leaving for Kansas just yet!
Which leads me to part two of my argument. I recently received a link to a web site from my cousin Bonnie Jones, a contributor to the Briles Information Network. She has also accessed the Guilford County Web site and agrees that restricting the access is wrong. But the real reason for this story is what is contained in the web site that Bonnie so graciously sent to me. In Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter dated July 16, 2007, there is current legislation throughout the country that will remove total access to all vital records. Not just on-line access, but public access in general. Meaning, you can get nothing! The article cites as justification to close access to vital records:
“They want to protect people’s privacy, prevent identity theft, and prevent terrorism,” she says. “But we find there’s no evidence that open public records contribute to identity theft or terrorism to any measurable degree."
Without losing it again like I did earlier, I will refrain from the main justification for restricting access to all vital records. I will say again however that birth records for the living should be restricted, but those for dead people should not. This is a hot topic that needs to be explored throughout the genealogy community. Vital records are public records. I encourage all to view this web site and to comment on the current movement to restrict public records. Without access to vital records, the linkage to our heritage is vastly compromised and our history will most certainly be erased.
Here is a link to the web site mentioned above. Again, many thanks to Bonnie Jones for the link:
Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter
http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2007/07/genealogists-fi.html#more July 16, 2007 online version of the Newsletter
Guilford County Registered of Deeds, Jeff Thigpen, Register of Deeds
This article may be used with expressed written permission from the author, R. Trent Briles. All requests can be made via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise All Rights Reserved. The Briles Information Network. Copyright: 2007
RESPONSE BY JEFF THIGPEN AND A COMMENT BY R. TRENT BRILES
PLEASE NOTE: Jeff Thigpen, Guilford County Register of Deeds, responded to this article and posted comments on the BLOG. He posted a private telephone for me to call him and I was unable to remove this number from his post. Mr. Thigpen's post was copied, then removed and is listed below along with my response.
I appreciate your post although you might not believe me. We are currently revising our access policies online and internally. Once revised, access to vitals will be restored under a registration and authentication system. Working with our vendor, that process should be completed within the next month. In addition, there will be revisions to our in office policies as well.
I respect and appreciate geneologists and hope to restore access to you soon. If you'd like to talk with me directly, please call me at 641-xxxx or my cell at xxx-xxxx.
Thank you for visiting the web site and for commenting on the article regarding privacy/access to vital records. I did speak with someone in your office prior to writing the article and felt the explanation given for the restricted access was acceptable. I didn't agree with it obviously, but I didn't want to bother you either.
I'm delighted you have taken this issue of access to heart and believe the steps you are taking to resolve it is a good thing for everyone. I believe that a registration/log-in procedure would satisfy the issue of privacy and be acceptable to anyone who accesses the site. As stated earlier, the Guilford County ROD Site has been a great asset to genealogist and visitors alike and your office has been wonderful every time I have visited there to conduct research and to access vital records.
I hope that others will follow your lead on this topic and allow continued access to public records, specifically vital records.