This is the President’s Column from the May 2014 issue of OnBoard written by Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL.
Pennsylvania researchers received a holiday gift on April 18th when Ancestry.com published a segment of the Pennsylvania death certificates online. As soon as the Pennsylvania legislature opened access to death records over fifty years old and birth records over one hundred five years old, Ancestry negotiated to digitize, index, and make them available.
However, neither the release nor the digitization happened overnight. Previously Pennsylvania had been one of the most restrictive states for access to vital records. The efforts of a grass-roots organization, People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access (www.pahr-access.org) headed by Tim Gruber, made public access possible. The long and winding road began in 2007 and through perseverance will end in March 2015 when the last installment of vital records will be available online. Every researcher who has found a lost family member or put a name to an infant who died too soon owes a debt of gratitude to Tim Gruber and PaHR-Access. They exemplify something I have been saying for twenty years: Whenever you say “why don’t they have XYZ?” realize that “they” are “us” who haven’t done it yet!
Genealogy has always been a grass-roots movement of people helping others. Without the record compilers, the society officers, and the newsletter editors, our research would be much poorer. Now, for good or for bad, the Internet makes everyone an expert and gives instant access to old records. Ask “Mr. Google” and he gives you information beyond your interest in the subject down to the most esoteric point. “Ms. YouTube” shows you instructional videos. “Mrs. Facebook” connects you with cousins by the dozens. But the heart of genealogy is still people helping people. Despite technology, we still crave the human touch and the feeling that we belong and can contribute to a greater cause, that our life has meaning..
As one record group opened, access to the latest three years of data for another is being closed. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) was originally created to expose fraudulent use of social security numbers. The database was intended for banks and credit card companies to check if new applications were using deceased individuals’ SSNs. Genealogists to class reunion organizers have benefited from the only U.S. nationwide death index. Recently the IRS paid out over $70 million for 19,102 claims against deceased individuals’ SSNs, accounting for only 1.9% of fraudulent returns for the tax year 2011. The simple answer is to adhere to the checking system already in place, but instead the most recent three years of SSDI data will be closed to the public. For those who demonstrate a need for access, a “certification” process requiring over $1,000 in fees is available. (This should not be confused with genealogical certification offered by the BCG.)
Community maturity occurs when we realize that by helping a cause which doesn’t directly affect us, others are doing the same in an area that does. How does access to the SSDI affect you? Do you wonder “why don’t they have a digitized national index?” Remember “they” are “us”! How can “us” help? If you want to learn more about the ongoing records access situation and how to help, you can find information posted monthly on the BCG SpringBoard blog (http://blog. bcgcertification.org/) or on the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) blog (http://www.fgs.org/rpac).
Pennsylvania’s PaHR-Access proved it takes perseverance and the involvement of many interested parties. It takes a village to raise awareness. Are you part of the village?