Saturday, July 09, 2005

Missouri Law Could Chill Records Access

Goin' to Kansas City . . . But Future Cyber-trips to the Heartland May Be in Doubt

Spent several hours last night in KC-MO [that's Kansas City, Missouri for the uninitiated] and got a week's worth of research done. And I was home for dinner in Virginia!

My "trip" was made possible by the great folks at the Jackson County [Mo.] Department of Records, under the direction of Robert Kelly. I've talked about their online records search site before, and it's gotten even better. Last night, in just a couple of hours, I got free copies of marriage licenses for eleven ancestors from the Kansas City area, and learned a number of things about at least a dozen more relatives and ancestors.

Jackson County has on-line marriage records that go back as far as 1827. [The earliest I saw was from 1861]. The records are searchable by bride or groom names, dates, license number if known, and place filed [Kansas City, Independence, or eastern Jackson County]. But the best part is that the county has scanned the original documents into downloadable PDF and TIFF files.

The viewable files include the marriage license itself, the application for license, and the affidavit of parental consent for underage individuals. As one might expect, these documents provide a treasure trove of vital statistics. I learned ages and birth dates that I had not found anywhere else. But there are other bits of information as well. For example, I discovered that my mother's great-grandfather, Ezekiel Johnson, apparently could not read or write. He had to give his consent to the marriage of 16 year old Mary Elizabeth Johnson to James William Long in 1888. The parental consent form is filled out in the clerk's handwriting and signed "Ezekiel Johnson, [+] his mark."

I also found out that at least two relatives were married more times than is generally known in the family. I learned names and places of birth of in-laws as well.

The documents are not certified copies [and in fact are watermarked UNOFFICIAL DOCUMENT]. But their basic research value cannot be discounted.

The site is easy to use. It's powered by Hart Workflow, a product of Austin, Texas-based Hart InterCivic. I first came across Hart's handiwork at the website of the county clerk in Gregg County, Texas.

At a time when many local governments have made silly decisions about access to vital records, Jackson County [like Gregg in Texas] has done a great public service. But developments in Jefferson City, Missouri's capital, threaten to shut off this service.

In May, the Missouri legislature passed SB 420. This complex bill does a number of things, but relevant here, it prohibits the posting of certain information about public officials on the Internet without the consent of the officials. Read more about SB 420 here. See what the St Louis Post-Dispatch had to say on the matter. Jackson County and other local governments in Missouri contend that the type of information in the Jackson County records site would have to be removed under SB 420. They also argue that the bill would impose tremendous management burdens on local records managers. Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields has written this letter to Governor Matt Blunt, urging him to veto the bill.

The local governments may be overreacting to the impact of the bill, strictly speaking. But it doesn't matter. If they remove records to comply out of an abundance of prudence, the public will lose. If they are faced with the choice of removing the information or litigating the intent of SB 420, you can guess which they'll choose.

The bill is before the Governor and there may be reason for optimism. During his four year term as Missouri's Secretary of State, Blunt was a champion for access to Missouri's great state archives, including the pre-1910 Births & Deaths Database. As of this writing, Governor Blunt had not taken action on SB 420. His office says he will complete bill signings by July 14.

1888 Marriage License, James W. Long & Mary E. Johnson

UPDATE (7/14/05): Governor Signs Law; Says "Ignore It."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a native of KCMO, I find this very disappointing. I've used the Jackson County website many times since you pointed it out, and it's been absolutely invaluable to me in my research. Thanks for the pointer on this. Please keep us posted on the final resolution. (No pun intended.)

DeAnna (Spillman) Burghart
(Now of California, where the weather is *much* better)