Ancestry.com is actually In Cahoots With Public Records Agencies, A Group Suspects


Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Wikimedia Commons

I know in which Michael Peck, my great-great-great-grandfather, died on July 14, 1922. I know in which because last October I visited the cemetery in Cornwall, completely new York, to find the date on his headstone. I had been searching for information on Michael for almost a decade on Ancestry.com, although never found any information about his death. Had I waited until a few weeks ago, I could have saved myself the trip upstate. Ancestry finally added the completely new York State Death Index for 1852–1956 to its collection, as well as I might have found Michael’s date of death having a few clicks of a mouse.

in which completely new archive on Ancestry, however, was added under questionable circumstances, one genealogist claims. Brooke Schreier Ganz, the founder of the nonprofit group Reclaim the Records, has filed a lawsuit against the completely new York state agency handling the records, calling into question whether in which engages in backroom dealings or preferential treatment with Ancestry.

According to the lawsuit, “although the same Records Access Office at [the Department of Health] handled both [Freedom of Information Act] requests, the timeline as well as procedures followed throughout the process for Ms. Ganz as well as Reclaim the Records was different than in which was for Ancestry.com.”

“in which is actually public data, in which’s paid [for] by our taxes as well as housed in government buildings.”

Reclaim the Records says in its lawsuit against the completely new York Department of Health, which manages the death index, in which in which made its request before Ancestry although was met having a slow response by the state as well as quoted a questionably high cost to retrieve them. in which is actually currently suing for documents “shedding light on why as well as how [the Department of Health] was able to respond to Ancestry.com’s request for the Death Index microfiche, with the production of digitized copies” in such a short period while the group’s request for the same records was delayed.

Reclaim the Records’ mission is actually to petition state, federal, as well as city record keepers to hand over historical archives in which are of interest to genealogists as well as put them on the internet for people to see for free. Things like death records as well as marriage certificates over 50 years old are — legally — open to the public, although often require showing up at the building where the records are kept.

“Too many government agencies as well as archives have long treated genealogists as if we were asking them for a favor when we ask to see their records — our records — rather than recognizing their responsibilities to the public under the law,” the group, which is actually funded by donations, states on its website.

Companies like Ancestry.com do the exact same thing, although Ganz wants those public records online for free — not behind a paywall.


NY state death index / Via completely new York Department of Health

Michael Peck’s entry inside completely new York State death index for 1922.

Ganz started out the group in 2015 after becoming frustrated waiting for completely new York state records she was searching for to research her own family tree. She knew they existed in state archives, although they weren’t being digitized as well as made easily available to the public. So she started out using freedom of information laws, which make government records available to the public, to force the local government to open its vault of genealogy records.

So far, the group has successfully gotten state records by completely new York, completely new Jersey, as well as completely new York City (the city includes a records archive separate by the state). In NYC, they’re currently working on doing old records in which go back to the Dutch colonial era, starting in 1670, available to the public.

in which is actually just one sad story of many, where overzealous restrictions on public records access, even decades after everyone involved is actually dead, means in which the remains of thousands of mentally ill as well as/or developmentally disabled people are left sitting on shelves in US gov’t buildings. https://t.co/p2QjXWlX4D

You have just got to admire the folk behind @ReclaimTheRecs. Not only are they doing family historians inside US a huge service, although they have a great sense of humour inside face of absurd government officials. https://t.co/tadU5rUjU8

Ganz says her mission is actually to help fellow genealogists, although she also sees in which as a David as well as Goliath battle over government records. “in which’s clear in which there are some companies in which are doing huge profits by privatizing public data. in which is actually public data, in which’s paid [for] by our taxes as well as housed in government buildings,” she told BuzzFeed News.


Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

The Business of Records

DNA testing gets all the attention these days — by shining light on your ethnic background to identifying serial killers — although for real genealogy buffs, searching for the paper trail in old censuses, wills, as well as marriage records to build a family tree is actually a hobby in which they will happily spend money on for years.

Ancestry’s US-only records subscription starts at $198 per year, as well as its most expensive plan with worldwide records access plus newspaper as well as military records is actually $398 per year. In 2017, Ancestry had 3 million paying subscribers as well as $1 billion in revenue.

While some records can be found for free on sites like FamilySearch.org (which is actually sponsored by the Mormon church), Ancestry simply has, well, more of them, to justify the cost. in which also has records in which aren’t by the government — Ancestry recently announced in which’s collaborating having a historical society to digitize records by the Catholic Church inside Boston area. in which has different nongovernmental records, like phone books as well as yearbooks, as well as by groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution.

“There are actually difficult decisions we make about access to historical records every day.”

In September 2018 alone, Ancestry added six completely new records collections, including marriage records 1837–2015 for several counties in Texas; completely new Jersey Marriage Index 1901–2016; as well as Beaver County, Pennsylvania, tax records by 1832–1925.

The way Utah-based Ancestry obtains these collections varies. Sometimes a representative by Ancestry will reach out to a local government archive or historical society as well as offer to take on the costs, labor, as well as machinery needed to scan as well as digitize their records. For a local archive having a tiny budget, the digitizing costs could be absolutely prohibitive. Scans or photographs of the historical records must be taken with expensive equipment. Then all the information has to be transcribed by actual humans to ensure in which the names, dates, as well as locations are searchable digitally.

Liz Tice, president of the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society in Oregon, told BuzzFeed News how Ancestry approached them with an offer to digitize their records, which were added earlier in which year: “They hired someone to do in which at the library, filming our collection as well as the Oregon State Library’s. They had the [exclusive] right to put the images on their website, as well as we couldn’t do anything with the images on the internet for three years. In exchange we received a copy of the scanned images as well as access to Ancestry.com.” Although no money changed hands, Ancestry donated the scanning equipment, including computers as well as monitors, to the group.

Ancestry also recently digitized the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collection of state censuses by 1855–1905, as well as did a similar arrangement where Ancestry did the digitization for free, although asked for a three-year exclusivity window (with free access for state residents through its Ancestry Library Edition). Simone Munson, a librarian as well as archivist at the WHS, says groups like hers think carefully about doing deals with Ancestry, where their records will be only available online for Ancestry’s paying customers. “We realize in which there’s barriers for a lot of people to come in person to our archives, so we understand in which [getting in which digitized to be searchable online] might have to mean putting in which behind a paywall,” she told BuzzFeed News. “There are actually difficult decisions we make about access to historical records every day.”

Reclaim the Records v. completely new York State Department of Health

completely new York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requires in which a wide array of government documents — ranging by police reports to the governor’s daily visitor logs — must be made available upon request by the public. In 2016, Reclaim the Records issued a request to the Department of Health for the 1880–1952 death index through FOIL.

A death index has only the names as well as dates of deaths as well as the location number of where to find the full death certificate — in which’s not the full death certificate, which has more information, like cause of death as well as mother’s birth name. completely new York’s official death index is actually located in Albany on a bunch of rolls of microfiche, as well as to fulfill a FOIL request, those microfiche rolls need to be scanned as well as digitized, which takes time as well as effort.

There was some back as well as forth between Ganz as well as an official at the DOH over several months about how the scanning might take place. The DOH quoted a fee of $152,000 to have its own scanner do the work, which Ganz called a gross overestimate.

“State agencies generally have a preference for large corporations…”

Then unexpectedly during the process, the Department of Health told Ganz she didn’t need to worry about all the scanning or the fees: Someone had already done the scanning as well as they might send over a drive with the images.

in which someone turned out to be Ancestry. in which had issued its own FOIL request, months after Reclaim the Records filed its request, as well as digitized the files.

An Ancestry representative told BuzzFeed News they are “often asked to support government entities with records collection. In 2017, the completely new York Department of Health requested in which Ancestry create digital images of the NY State death indexes by fiche. Ancestry created as well as provided a digitized copy of the fiche to the NYDOH at the company’s own expense.”

In a sense, Ganz as well as Reclaim the Records had won their battle: They got the death index without even having to pay the fees as well as were able to send in which to the Internet Archive to be viewed for free by the public. although she sensed a greater defeat: The fact in which Ancestry had jumped the line inside records request didn’t sit right with her.

So she issued another FOIL request to see all communications — emails, vendor contracts, meeting minutes — between Department of Health employees as well as Ancestry to find out how as well as why Ancestry’s FOIL was seemingly given preferential treatment. The agency rejected in which.

Ganz as well as Reclaim the Records decided to sue the Department of Health, demanding in which give up the communications, which they think could show a state official giving Ancestry preference.

Ancestry declined to give BuzzFeed News a copy of those emails. A spokesperson said, “Ancestry was not a party to the suit. We will defer to the court’s decision.” The Department of Health told BuzzFeed News in which could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Lewis B. Oliver Jr., the lawyer representing Reclaim the Records inside case in Albany, told BuzzFeed News if they win the suit as well as communication between the DOH as well as Ancestry shows there was some sort of backroom deal or improper handling of the records request, the DOH employee could be subject to some internal reprimands.


Katie Notopoulos

Michael Peck’s headstone.

“State agencies generally have a preference for large corporations rather than individuals because there’s always a revolving door between state agencies as well as corporations in which are inside same area,” Oliver speculated, though he said in which’s unclear why any preferential treatment to Ancestry might have been given.

in which is actually not initially Reclaim the Records has sued a state or local government over rejecting a FOIL request, although its legal strategy for compelling states to give over records for genealogy research is actually completely new. They’ve successfully used in which technique to get genealogy records like the completely new York City Marriage Index for 1930–1995.

What makes in which case unique is actually in which in which’s a fight not just over documents, although over the relationship between record keepers as well as a big tech company in which has quietly been vacuuming up millions of people’s data as well as putting in which behind a paywall. Ganz told BuzzFeed News, “in which is actually data on veterans, in which’s data on our ancestry. in which’s a problem in which their data was paid for by our taxes.”

I’m currently waiting for a copy of my great-great-great-grandfather Michael Peck’s full death certificate. I printed out a form, wrote a check for $22, mailed in which to Albany, as well as will wait several weeks to get my copy inside mail. The death certificate will have information I’ve been waiting years to learn: his parents’ names, where in Ireland he was born, how he died. in which’s not a paywall, although another hurdle to learning about who he was. ●

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