Information, Please

By Diane Haddad Premium

Family history researchers created a surge in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for federal records during 2004, according to an Associated Press (AP) review <>. The FOIA requires the US government to release records to the public, except to protect national security.

FOIA requests surpassed 4 million in 2004, with the growth largely due to 1.5 million genealogy-related requests — double the 2003 number — to the Social Security Administration (SSA). The Department of Veterans Administration (VA) received 1.8 million requests, mostly for personnel and medical records.

People seeking genealogical information from the federal government fare relatively well in getting their questions answered. Uncle Sam granted 88 percent of FOIA requests in 2003 versus 66 percent in 1998 — an increase, says the AP, due entirely to SSA and VA requests. At the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury departments, the amount of requested information that’s eventually released has been declining since 1998.

Genealogists don’t fare as well when requesting information from state governments, which make their own public-records laws. Since Sept. 11, 2001, at least 20 states have proposed new laws to control public records, according to a First Amendment Center analysis <>. Legislation focuses on everything from birth and death records to emergency response plans. According to a Better Government Association survey of state public-records legislation <>, the laws’ haphazard nature hampers citizens’ ability to use them.

For a guide to using the FOIA, see <>.
From the August 2005 Family Tree Magazine