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Keeping Watch Over Massachusetts Public Records
How to Get Discouraged: Only Four States Represented at the RPAC Session at NGS
At 3:00 pm Thursday afternoon, 10 May 2012, in Cincinnati, Ohio, RPAC met at the National Genealogical Society’s annual convention. On behalf of MGC, I attended as a Massachusetts liaison.
What is RPAC? The Records Preservation and Access Committee is a three-person panel with an advisory board. The three panelists are delegates from the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. About a dozen people sit as advisors, but the bulk of the work and the bulk of the strategy comes from the three panelists: David Rencher, AG, CG, the Genealogist at FamilySearch in Utah; Fred Moss from Texas; and Jan Meisels Allen from California. Together for many years they have provided advice to state genealogical societies whenever access or preservation issues arise. Last year they supported our efforts to stop a bill that would have closed records back to 1840.
This year has certainly been one of those years in which access is under siege. I hope you’ve read our recent posts about bills before the U.S. Congress to shut off our access to the Social Security Death Index. That access was granted to us by court order under the Freedom of Information Act. The SSDI is the public face of the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (DMF). Just two days before the RPAC meeting, the House held a committee hearing on the bills. You would think that this active threat to open access would have generated lots of interest and that the room would have been packed. If that is your assumption, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Of the fifty states, only twenty-six have appointed liaisons to RPAC. Of those twenty-six liaisons, three were in the audience and one was remotely logged-in using webinar technology. Four out of twenty-six means that 15% of the liaisons attended in one way or another. Four out of fifty means that only 8% of the states supported the effort. Arizona’s Linda McCleary was logged-in. Nora Galvin attended from Connecticut but is not yet an official liaison. And, while I was delighted to visit and exchange business cards with Alvie Davidson, CG, from Florida and Billie Fogarty from Oklahoma, this is hardly a large enough team to win an access fight.
The first two-thirds of the meeting took the same form I saw at last year’s meeting. David Rencher presented the slide show that RPAC has developed for state liaisons. Then Jan Meisels Allen presented a slide show about how the legislative process works and where we can have an impact on it. Both slide shows should be accessible from the RPAC web site hosted by FGS at www.fgs.org/RPAC.
The meeting ended with Fred Moss passing a microphone around and taking questions. Rather than questions, however, we in the audience wanted to talk strategy. Nora Galvin asked why the SSDI online petition had so few signers. Judy Russell, CG, the Legal Genealogist blogger from New Jersey (and also not an official liaison), spoke about the need to lead our argument with our strongest argument, the importance of the SSDI to forensic researchers. I got a few words in, too, about focusing on the major parts of several bills that have to do with the real issue, tax fraud that government does nothing at all to deter. At that point, the meeting closed a half-hour earlier than scheduled.
Judy Russell’s blog posting at the end of the day said it all, “But the truth is, folks, … winning the records access battles that genealogists face is critical to all of us. We really need to pull together for all of these fights: for the SSDI, for access to vital records and so much more. These battles can’t be won if they’re fought by only a few.”
 Judy G. Russell, “NGS 2012 Day Two,” The Legal Genealogist, 12 May 2012; http://legalgenealogist.com/blog/2012/05/11/ngs-2012-day-2/ : viewed 15 May 2012.