People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access (PaHR-Access)
Frequently Asked Questions
For information about indices of Pennsylvania births and deaths now available online see Where and How Can I Look At These Records below. For a link to the indices see Vital Records Currently Available Online. Also take a look at How Is It Going At The State Archives for important information on doing research there. Also see When Will The Records Be Available Online.
Does anything else need to be done?
When Pennsylvania Vital Records Bill SB-361 (Act 110 of 2011) went into effect law on February 13th, 2012 it made death certificates over 50 years old and birth certificates over 105 years old open records. It also transfers certificates to the Pennsylvania State Archives once they become open records. The bill does not, however, require that the records be made available online. However, the Pennsylvania State Archives in August 2012 signed a contract with Ancestry.com to make the records available online. For more on this see When Will The Records Be Available Online?
Once the records are online and free to all to view our mission is for the most part complete. However, some people would like to also see an online index of deaths less than 50 years old. This might require another change in the law. In addition to benefiting genealogical and historical research it would also help to stop identity theft of the deceased by making it easier to verify deaths, the same purpose as the Social Security Death Index.
What is vital records bill sb-361 and what is its impact?
The bill we pushed very hard on Pennsylvania Vital Records Bill SB-361 was signed into law as Act 110 of 2011 on December 15th, 2011 and went into effect on Feb 13th, 2012. SB-361 has only two components. It makes death certificates over 50 years old and birth certificates over 105 years old open records. It also transfers the certificates to the Pennsylvania State Archives once they become open records. Currently this means all deaths certificates from 1906 to 1961 and birth certificates from 1906. As each year goes by another year's worth of birth and death certificates would become open records. Implementing this act has not cost the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania anything. There is simply no cost involved. Now that they are open records it is at least legally possible for them to be made available online. For a discussion on online access see When Will The Records Be Available Online?
Here is the complete history of the bill: SB-361. Amazingly the bill passed the Generally Assembly unanimously with only 2 votes against it in the whole process (in a committee vote 33-2). This is prime example of the public speaking up and the politicians of both parties listening.
What happened to vital records bill hb-1481?
The original bill we had gotten written and supported, and was reintroduced in May 2011 as Vital Records Bill HB-1481, would not only made birth certificates over 100 years old and death certificates over 50 years old open records it also required that they be made available online, an index of deaths less than 50 years, but more than 2 years old be available online, an online death registration system like many other states have and a few other minor provisions.
Because HB-1481 had at least some costs it would have had a very hard time getting through the state legislature. Although HB-1481 would have done everything we wanted in one bill we went with the very simple SB-361 because it had no costs at all. Considering cost is now, as they say, the 800 pound gorilla in the room we felt it would be best for now to totally eliminate the single biggest most important obstacle to better access to these older state records and having them online. By far privacy was always the number one objection. With these records becoming open records that objection totally ceases to exist. Because they are now open records it is legally possible to have them online. Also by having the records transferred to the State Archives it would seem much more likely that they would be made available online since the Archives has much fewer qualms about making records available to the general public than the PA Department of Health. For a discussion on online access see When Will The Records Be Available Online?
Where and how can i Look at these records?
Pennsylvania Vital Records Bill SB-361 (Act 110 of 2011) went into effect on Feb 13th, 2012. It allows the general public to view all of the original records at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Please go to the Archives website to learn the details (fourth paragraph down): http://www.portal.state.pa.us/. Be sure to read the instructions thoroughly as it will save you time and reduce frustration. Also please be patient with them they have limited staff and their budget has been reduced.
Contrary to what we were told earlier patrons of the States Archives will NOT be allowed to view microfilm of the records. The Division of Vital Records has provided online indices of the birth and death certificates that are currently open records (see second Pennsylvania entry under Vital Records Currently Available Online). Unfortunately they are rather crude indices and seem to be merely scanned images of printouts of their in house computer indices that look 30 or 40 years old and are not searchable as with a modern computer search engine. Each index is by year and listings are alphabetical. The index for birth records includes the person's name, date and place of birth and the mother's name. The father's name is not included. For the death index the data contains no more than the person's name, place and date of death although the later entries usually include the age.
It has been pointed out to us that there are gaps in Div. of Vital Record's online indices. Some of the index pages are missing making it impossible to find certain persons. We don't know if these pages were inadvertently skipped or if Vital Records lost them somewhere along the way. If it was the latter it might explain why some people have gotten "no record found" responses to their requests over the years.
For a discussion on online access see When Will The Records Be Available Online?
HOw is it going at the State Archives?
We have heard that the Pennsylvania State Archives has been getting a lot of visitors since February 15th, 2012 when these records were first made available there. Unfortunately because of cuts in staff and retrieving the records is so time consuming they have limited the maximum number of certificates one person can request each day to 10 and it takes about an hour for requests to be filled. Of course this puts a damper on going to the Archives unless you happen to live reasonably close and can go back more than one day. Also note that the records from 1952-1961 are in bound books. So they cannot be photocopied. However, people are allowed to photograph them without a flash.
It has been pointed out to us that there are gaps in Div. of Vital Record's online indices. Some of the index pages are missing making it impossible to find certain persons. We don't know if these pages were inadvertently skipped or if Vital Records lost them somewhere along the way. If it was the latter it might explain why some people have gotten "no record found" responses over the years to their requests.
The State Archives has recently signed a contract with Ancestry.com to have the records scanned and made available online which will help to greatly reduce the burden on the Archives staff. However, the whole process is expected to take 18 months and as each batch of records is scanned that particular patch will not be available to patrons. Also it will be three years after completion of the contract that the records will be available online to all for free. In the meantime they could use some volunteer help. Those wishing to help with patrons and retrieving the records should contact the Archives. However, because of the training and setting up of such an arrangement the Archives asks volunteers to preferably commit to a minimum of half a day once a week for at least one month. This would be Wednesday, Thursday or Friday 9-4 (no Saturdays as the Archives does not retrieve records on Saturday). Those who do volunteer would help reduce the burden on the Archives and help patrons see more records. Archives contact info: Pennsylvania State Archives.
Why do they need to be in a database and also online?
The Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records has recently provided online indices of certificates that have become open records. However, the indices are rather crude and seem to be merely scanned images of printouts of their in house computer indices that look 30 or 40 years old and are not searchable as with a modern computer search engine. Each index is by year and listings are alphabetical. The index for birth records includes the person's name, date and place of birth and the mother's name. The father's name is not included. For the death index the data contains no more than the person's name, place and date of death although the later entries usually include the age. For links to these indices see Vital Records Currently Available Online. For a link to these indices see the second Pennsylvania entry under Vital Records Currently Available Online.
Once records are in a database and using a search engine it would be possible to search all of these records in a way that is light years away from literally checking the index one line at a time and one year at a time. It will be possible to search for a person using only select information such as when they were born, parents' names, first name only, location of birth and/or death, etc. This would be most valuable to researchers who are not sure what year the person died, where they died or even what the last name was or how it was spelled.
Online access will make these records truly accessible to all rather than just those who visit or write the State Archives. It won't just to make it more convenient it would open the records to to millions who would never make it to the Pennsylvania State Archives. Here is an example of how much more these records would be used if they were online. According to what we have learned from the Missouri State Archives, before setting up their online database, it received approximately 5,000 requests per year for death certificates more than 50 years old. In the first 18 months after setting up their online database for older death certificates they had counted 8.8 million searches for death certificates. We have no doubt if Pennsylvania had such a database it would be several times more popular and utilized. A large percentage of Americans can trace their ancestry back to a Pennsylvania ancestor.
Seventeen states have already made their older death certificates available online: Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. For eight states there are extracted data from death certificates available online: Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington. Click here to see links to the databases for these other states.
Online access will also help people more readily compile their family medical histories which if done thoroughly should not only include parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents (a total of 30 in itself) but all of their siblings as well (which all tolled can easily exceed 100). Here is a link to a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services webpage in which the U.S. Surgeon General talks about the importance of people learning about their family medical history: http://www.hhs.gov/familyhistory/
When will The Records Be Available Online?
In August 2012 the Pennsylvania State Archives signed a contract with Ancestry.com to have the original state birth and death certificates that are now open records scanned and data extracted. Scanning the original certificates will provide the best possible images. The contract gives exclusive online access to Ancestry for three years after which the database will be moved to the Pennsylvania State Archives website where it will be free to all. Unfortunately access to the records while they are on Ancestry will require having a subscription to Ancestry. However, the contract does require that Pennsylvania residents have free access to this particular database. How that will be accomplished has not been worked out and they are open to suggestions as to how all Pennsylvania residents and only Pennsylvania residents could have access. Also many libraries and research centers everywhere provide free access to Ancestry.
The processing started on August 27, 2012 when the first batch of records have been transported to Ancestry's relatively close facilities in Silver Spring, MD. They have started with the earliest records (1906) and after each year is complete the following year will then be processed. While the records are being processed they will not be available at the State Archives. Ancestry is expected to make the records available online as they are processed and data extracted. All the records are expected to be done within 18 months (around February 2014). According to the state archivist the first patch of records are expected to be available online in "late Summer".
The data extraction is expected to include the dates of birth and death, parents' names including the mother's maiden name and hopefully the place of birth. Using a search engine it will be possible to search for a person using any one factor or combination of factors as well as for names that are spelled or phonetically similar. This will be specially important to people who have surnames that are often misspelled or spelled several ways.
While we would have very much preferred that the records be made available online for free to all immediately rather than after three years it is still much better than what we have been dealing with for over 100 years. Ancestry was apparently able to make the best deal for the Archives and the records will eventually be available online to all at no cost to the taxpayer.
What about identity theft?
Some may be concerned that it is one thing to have these records at an archives it is another to have them online for all to see. The suggestion is that it will contribute to identity theft. Rather than possibly contributing having the death record information readily available should actually help stop identity fraud by making it easier to verify deaths. The easier it is to verify a death the harder it is to steal that identity and the more easily the would be thief is found out. Keeping the records offline only makes it easier for identity thieves. No one can use a death certificate as identification and no identity thief will bother with an identity that is readily verified as deceased.
The Social Security Death Index (which is actually derived from the Social Security Death Master File database) contains information on persons whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration. This information, available to all worldwide, includes the person's dates of birth and death, where they last lived and their Social Security number. While it may seem counterintuitive to have this information readily accessible to everyone it is purposely made available to verify deaths and therefore help stop identity theft. As we understand it banks, insurance and credit companies, law enforcement and government agencies use it all the time for that very purpose (they do not know a person is deceased unless someone tells them or they have a way of verifying it). The information from this database is released weekly and includes persons who have died very recently including many people you may have known personally. But it does not contain all deaths, only starts in the 1950's and therefore is not an alternative what we are requesting. As an example of being able to find just about anyone's name in this database Elvis Presley's Social Security number was 409-52-2002, late Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey's was 161-26-3777, late Pennsylvania State Senator James Rhoades’ was 193-32-9493 and late Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll’s was 194-22-0660.
For similar reasons we suggest having an index of Pennsylvania deaths less than 50 years online. It could be used by law enforcement and government agencies for the purpose of verifying deaths and to help proactively stop the stealing of identities of deceased persons (known as ghosting). Missouri state law enforcement has used that state's older death certificate database for this very purpose.
As we understand it the greatest danger of ghosting is in the first few days to months after a person has died. Identity-thieves read obituaries and use the information to obtain credit cards, etc. Because the victims are deceased it is often quite some time before the deceptions are discovered. For this reason the experts strongly recommend copies of the death certificate be sent to the major credit bureaus as quickly as possible (after all they don’t know a person is deceased until someone tells them). This why Pennsylvania should adopt an online death registration system like many other states have already done. It would allow death certificates to be processed in hours instead of days.
We need to get away from the naïve belief that if we limit the amount of information getting out there we will minimize the chances of identity theft. Given the nature of the Internet this is little more than crossing our fingers as more and more information is forever being added from multiple and sometimes unknown sources. We need to make it so that no matter how much information identity thieves may have on deceased persons it will do them absolutely no good. The easier it is to verify deaths the harder it will be for the identities of the deceased to be stolen.
what about an index of deaths less than 50 years?
HB-1481 and earlier versions of it that we had been pushing for the last four years included a provision for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide an index of deaths less than 50 years. Because it would have only been an index it would have insured privacy, but include enough information to make a workable index that could be used to proactively help stop identity theft of the deceased by making it easier to verify deaths, the same purpose as the Social Security Death Index. See What About Identity Theft.
The PA Department of Heath does have an extracted database of deaths starting in 1960. What it would take or cost to make it fully useful as an index for verifying deaths online is not known to us. However, to make this legally possible might require another change in the law.
Why 105 years for birth Records?
Some may wonder how did they come up with 105 years for birth certificates to become open records. This was done as a compromise with the PA Department of Health. They wanted it to be 125 years and State Senator Robert Robbins managed to get them to go along with 105 years as a compromise. Considering they might have easily asked for many more changes and amendments and drag the process out it seems like a reasonable compromise.
Their concern was supposedly identity theft. While identity theft should be taken very seriously in quite a few states, however, birth records are available online as late as 2008.
What about Pennsylvania county vital records?
Pennsylvania county vital records have always been open records and can be viewed by the general public at the courthouse (or county archives if there is one) where they were recorded. Viewing these records has not been a problem anywhere near like getting access to state vital records has been especially since Pennsylvania passed an open records (right-to-know) law a few years ago.
County vital records include birth and death records from 1893 to 1905 although some counties continued to record birth and deaths to as late as 1936. A chart showing what county/municipal birth and death records are available, who holds them and if they have been copied or data extracted is available through a link under the Vital Records Currently Available Online section of our website (the fourth Pennsylvania listing). Extracted data and indexes for some Pennsylvania county birth and death records are available online. Go to the same section for links to these databases. Generally the biggest differences between a state death certificate and a county death record is that county death records do not include birth dates and the parents' names (unless the person was a minor).
County vital records also include marriage records since 1885 to the present. The images of some Pennsylvania county marriage records 1885-1950 are now available online at familysearch.org. See Vital Records Currently Available Online section of our website for the link to this database (the third Pennsylvania listing). More are to be added over time. They include the marriage application which usually has the most helpful data such as one or both parents' names, birth places, ages or sometimes birth dates, occupations and so on. The data required on the record varied over time and from county to county.
What other Pennsylvania records do you want to see opened up?
There are actually relatively few government records in Pennsylvania that are not open records that would be of use to genealogists and researchers. Pennsylvania's relatively new Right-to-know law helps to make sure that all records that are legally open records are readily accessible and not made for all practical purposes inaccessible by some government officials for questionable reasons.
We pushed for better access to Pennsylvania state birth and death records because they were so severely restricted and grossly underutilized. All marriage, tax, estate and nearly all court records have always been open records and can be accessed by anyone immediately. This includes coroner reports which deal with the most controversial deaths in great detail. However, because adoptions are listed in the Orphans Court index, access to the index in some counties is restricted to the courthouse staff. Usually you have to tell them what you are looking for and they'll check the index for you. This is true even of indexes of 1800's records. This brings us to our next subject.
Adoption records in Pennsylvania are literally sealed forever. It takes a court order to unseal an adoption record and it is done so only for the person making the request who must have a compelling reason. This is true of all adoption records in Pennsylvania no matter how incredibly old they may be including all such records over 100 years old. The American Adoption Congress and probably other similar organizations are working on having Pennsylvania's adoption records access laws modernized. At the very least adoption records should be made open records after a maximum number of years such as 100. It is unlikely after such a length of time having an adoption record become an open record will cause anyone any harm or embarrassment. We doubt anyone will get upset because they found out one of their ancestors was adopted 150 or 200 years ago. Meanwhile many people have an impenetrable brick wall stopping their quest to learn their ancestry and family medical history because all adoption records in Pennsylvania are so tightly and indefinitely sealed.
Has this effort really succeeded?
It most certainly already has to a great degree. With help from many, many people and organizations we successfully changed Pennsylvania from one of the very most restricted states when it comes to access to state birth and death records to one that is about in the middle which is what we were hoping for. Now that the records will be online our mission is nearly complete. We hope we have also the Government of Pennsylvania and the general public are much more aware that people care about our great Pennsylvania heritage and access to historical records as well as the preservation of such records.
This has been very much a state wide and even a national effort. We have been in contact with over 1000 organizations, institutions and businesses involved in history and genealogy throughout Pennsylvania as well as some in other states and some national. We have heard from people throughout Pennsylvania, across the United States and even several foreign countries. But make no mistake about it. We succeeded only because so many people and organizations in and outside of Pennsylvania spoke up and sent letters, emails, faxes, made phone calls and visited the governor of Pennsylvania and the state legislators. Without all their effort and help the law would not have been changed. We thank you and everyone who will benefit by the vastly greater access to these records thanks you for a job well done.
We would enjoy hearing from you
(updated May 1st, 2013)