Public records in the digital age
In the digital age, public records are now available virtually anywhere in various online databases. Traditionally, librarians were often asked to help patrons access public records at libraries. It is no different now except that in many cases the resources that provide public records are now available online. Librarians need to be familiar with the various databases and repositories that contain public records. Here are some examples of some of the types of records and information that people look for.
Among the first type of public records to be compiled and organized by government entities were property ownership documents. When a person bought a tract of land, they naturally wanted their ownership to be a matter of public record for all to see or find. That long-standing tradition has remained unchanged throughout all ages and property documents that pertain to public lots, business establishments and structures are freely accessible.
Additionally, buildings or areas commission by local municipalities or other public representative typically have written records of communications regarding initial establishment in addition to details about contractual terms thereof and the actual contracts on file in public records offices. Although many private house sales and ownership are not subject to public records laws, statues or local ordinances, expert appraisals of such properties are generally part of the public record, presumably to ensure the integrity of negotiations and expectations of all involved parties.
Major Life Events
Most of the biggest events from the beginning to end of most people's entire lifetimes are invariable part of the public record. Bylaw, hospitals and attending physicians who deliver new babies must report all births to appropriate state authorities. Likewise, medical examiners must issue death certificates that in turn become public records. Maintaining an official catalogue of births and deaths help prevent states from having non-existent resides in their records or social program rosters.
Original marriage licenses are also maintained as part of the public record. Such documents are extremely valuable to genealogical researchers. States typically operate vital statistics bureaus or similar agencies, in addition to a growing number of online public records databases.
Criminal records and court dockets
Some high-profile trials and court proceedings that involve sensitive or very provocative issues that could incite riot or general disorder may be sealed, however all goings on at courthouses and in courtrooms are matters of public record. Dockets, case summaries may be perused once the matter is closed. Likewise, information about defendants and possibly other litigations involved in notorious court cases are generally available.
Criminal records are also typically available for on-demand access at courthouses and law enforcement agencies that list all prior charges, convictions and outstanding warrants on individuals. Some states have laws that allow expungement of certain convictions from public records after the passage of a certain length of time or convictions that involved certain surrounding circumstances. Even where full expungement is not permitted, such convictions may be at least sealed from public access and basic background checks. As such, it is advisable to consult local agencies and public offices to learn the specific record keeping and access polices applicable to your specific jurisdiction.
Meeting Minutes from Public Forums
Any official assembly or meeting of public officials and/or elected representatives will be governed by public records laws. This not only applies to mayors' and governors, usually extends to all elected state representatives as well as town hall and school board meetings. Transparency and accountable are cornerstones of public records keeping, and abovementioned type of documents definitely fall within those basic parameters.
Some information maintained in public records is intended to promote public safety. A prime example is sex offender registries. Other public safety records that often contain details about various consumer reports and/or defective product recalls is another common example.
If you are looking for public records while at a library, always be courteous to the library staff. Never make the common mistake of exuding an attitude of "Gotcha!" It will instantly backfire by putting employees on the defensive, whose help you need to obtain desired records and documents.
If you do happen to encounter any difficulties, the proper legal authority to cite is the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that mandates public access to most data maintained by public agencies and public records offices upon proper request. Moreover, your state of residence most likely has additional statutory provisions that pertain to freely accessible public records upon formal request. Finally, be prepared to pay at least a nominal cost to retrieve any public record.
Although access is intended to be freely available, duplication is not. However, the cost is typically just 5 to 10 cents per printed or copied page. Be aware that exorbitant reproduction costs have been a popular tactic employed by some public records offices to discourage public access. If you meet with such resistance, it may be advisable to consult expert legal counsel or someone with more experience and influence who may be able to squash matters before full-blown litigation ensues. Fortunately, such stubborn resistance is extremely rare and very unlikely to occur.