Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Pennsylvania Historical Records Access

There is a grassroots movement to encourage the Pennsylvania state government to permit open access to Pennsylvania death records older than 50 years. The People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access (PaHR-Access) web site, with information, sample letters, and mailing addresses, is http://users.rcn.com/timarg/PaHR-Access.htm.

This site says:

"Currently, all death certificates recorded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since 1906 have restricted access regardless of how long ago a person died. Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records regulations require the requester to supply several pieces of information (including when and where the person died), spend $9 and wait 5 weeks or longer for each and every death certificate. A requester is also required to have a direct relationship to the deceased in order to obtain a copy of a death certificate. Often a requester doesn’t know if the person is related and needs the death certificate to find out. This is especially true when compiling family histories and trying to find the descendants of a common ancestor. The information a requester is expected to supply is quite often the very information a requester is looking for and the very reason for wanting a death certificate.

"Many of us have experienced the frustration of either being told the death certificate could not be found or being sent the wrong certificate. Yes, a requester can pay $34 for an extended search of up to a ten year window with the charge of an additional $25 for each extension to that search window. To say the least this is quite costly to the requester and very time consuming for the Division of Vital Records. Sadly it doesn’t always result in a successful search and the fee is not refunded.

"Also Pennsylvania doesn’t have a publicly accessible index to see if the person even died in Pennsylvania. So it becomes an expensive guessing game that doesn’t always result in finding a death certificate even when the person actually died in Pennsylvania. Because of the many burdensome and counterintuitive restrictions, the public is not able to use these historic records as much as they should be able to.

"We understand the concerns about privacy. However, there is no practical reason to keep all of these records restricted indefinitely. Therefore, our basic proposal is that the death certificates that would be accessible online by the public would have to be at least 50 years old. Currently that would mean only the death certificates of persons who died before 1958 would be made accessible. As each year passes the next year in line would be made accessible online to the public."

Read the entire web page, and if you feel moved to write a letter, please do that.

Many of our CVGS members have Pennsylvania ancestry, and the lack of online death records after 1906 is very frustrating.

There is really no good reason that Pennsylvania should not put more recent death records in an online index or make the actual death certificates available for free - other states do it as a public service.

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