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 Have They Put The Records Online Yet.
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 did 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 Have They Put The Records Online Yet?
Once all the records are online and free to all to view our mission will be 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 1963 and birth certificates from 1906 to 1908. 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. The law made it at least legally possible for the records to be made available online. For a discussion on online access see Have They Put The Records Online Yet?
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 seemed 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 Have They Put The Records Online Yet?
Where and how can i Look at these records?
There are two ways you can look at these records, at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg and online at Ancestry.com.
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 birth and death records that are open 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.
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 had gotten "no record found" responses to their requests over the years.
We estimate that over 9 million Pennsylvania death certificates are open records which is probably one of the single largest sources of genealogical data in Pennsylvania. While not as large in number, quite a few of the open records birth certificates from before 1909 will include many births from before 1906 because many people had gotten what were called "delayed birth certificates" (until Social Security was enacted in 1938 most of the time people didn't need a birth certificate for any reason).
For a discussion on online access see Have They Put The Records Online Yet?
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 Division 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.
However, now that Ancestry.com has started to put these records online the demand to see these records at the Archives is expected to drop off considerably especially by the time all the records are online. And thankfully because the original records were scanned (rather than scanning the microfilms of the records) there should be little or no difference between the scans and looking at the originals.
Why is it so important to have them in a database and also online?
The Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records had provided online indices of certificates when the records became 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.
Now that the records are in a database and using a search engine it is 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 is 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 is most valuable to researchers who are not sure what year the person died, where they died or even what the surname name was or how it was spelled. Keep in mind that many names are misspelled on the original certificates and the data is only as good as the informant's knowledge of the person.
Online access makes 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 very 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/
have they put the Records Online yet?
In a word yes. 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 provides the best possible images far better than scanning the often poor quality microfilms. 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, Pennsylvania residents (and only Pennsylvania residents) have free access to this particular database as they do with other Pennsylvania Archives records already scanned and made available online by Ancestry. Access for Pennsylvania residents is accomplished by registering online without cost through this link: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/. Also remember many libraries and research centers everywhere provide free access to Ancestry.
The processing started on August 27, 2012 when the first batch of records were transported to Ancestry's relatively close facilities in Silver Spring, MD. All the open records (births up to 1908 and deaths up to 1963) have now been scanned. The is the overall schedule:
April 18, 2014 - Ancestry.com has put the first batch of death records online (1906-1924).
June 24, 2014 -
second batch of
death records online
October 24, 2014 - Ancestry.com has put the third patch of death records online (1945-63).
March 2015 – birth certificates (1906)
The data extraction includes the dates of birth and death, parents' names (including the mother's maiden name) and places of birth. Using a search engine it is 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 All The Mistakes I See In The Database on Ancestry?
There are almost always mistakes made when indexing records (data extraction as it called) no matter who does it. Except a few typos, many of the mistakes are from misreading the handwriting. Letters like n and u, a and o, r and s, h and k, L and S, etc are easily confused for each other and not always easy to distinguish (keep this in mind while you search). Because of this problem a person like Nathan Kostenbauder is misindexed as Nachau Kostercande or David Hahn as Dovul Helm. Many other mistakes are on the original certificates such as indicating the date of birth the same as date of death even though the person, for example, is listed as 89 years old or listing the informant's parents' names instead of the deceased's. Names, dates and locations can often be inaccurate and most of the information on a certificate is only as accurate as the informant's knowledge of the deceased (for instance they may have been mistaken about who the deceased's parents were or where they were born). Usually the most reliable information on a certificate is the date and place of death. Birth dates and locations, parents' names, spellings, etc are all subject to inaccuracies.
However, Ancestry.com, the company that is putting these records online, is very notorious for indexing (data extraction) mistakes. Ancestry uses workers in places like Asia and Latin America where English is usually a second language at best. Also Ancestry does not have a second person check to see if the indexing is correct so whatever mistakes the first person made in indexing remain. From what we have seen so far there are an abundance of mistakes, some are understandable because of the handwriting but quite a few that are entirely Ancestry's mistakes. On more than a few we found the indexing is totally incomplete in which only the month and year of death was indexed despite the fact that the original certificate had been completely filled in. On a number of certificates in which the surname contained an expletive such as Lipshitz Ancestry indexed these by deliberately misspelling the surname and repeating the father's given name. For example Silvia Lipshitz is indexed as Silvia Lipshatz and her father is listed by Ancestry as Jacob Jacob. On quite a few certificates we found where, for example, children and stillborns were born in 1810 and died in 1910 according to Ancestry. Another common mistake in Ancestry's indexing is where the information is mixed up. For example George Ludwig, who died in 1916, is listed by Ancestry as born in Jacob and his father's name as Ludwig Germany (the certificate actually lists George as born in Germany and his father's name as Jacob Ludwig). Ancestry even has one person listed with the name of "Rester Co Hospital For The Insane" rather than as Hanna Reardon.
Unfortunately these kinds of mistakes are all too common on Ancestry and in Ancestry's database of Pennsylvania Death Certificates. After looking at a diverse selection of many, many thousands of certificates from all over Pennsylvania we estimate about 50% of all certificates we have seen so far have mistakes ranging from very minor to having many very serious mistakes. Some are because of the poor handwriting while at least 25% are due to Ancestry's very low indexing standards. Naturally this can make it very difficult for anyone to find the person they are looking for. Because of this and because the database will eventually be handed over to the Pennsylvania State Archives we are asking everyone who can to correct any and all mistakes you come across. And please let Ancestry know about this problem and how a record that is misindexed is pretty much useless to its customers if they cannot find it. Those with a subscription to Ancestry are able to make corrections to all the data except to the birth and death dates and the place of death. We have asked Ancestry to allow its customers to be able to correct these as well. Unfortunately those who access this database on Ancestry through the Library Edition of Ancestry are not able to make any corrections.
When you make corrections please try to limit your corrections to two categories for names. "Transcription Errors" should reflect exactly what was written on the original certificate verbatim. "Variation" should be used to reflect the normal way the name is spelled or found on the person's tombstone (for example, if the person's death certificate lists him as Charles Schumacher, but his tombstone lists him as Chas Shoemaker or when a woman is listed by her husband's name such as Mrs John Smith). Please avoid the temptation to add information that is not on the certificate such as the person's exact place of birth when it is not on the certificate, middle names or the mother's maiden name when it is not listed. Corrections should only reflect what is actually on the certificate and to help others find that person's death certificate and not simply to add additional data. The idea is to make corrections to Ancestry's indexing and not to make corrections found on the original certificates. Remember any changes and additional data you add will stay with the database so please be sure your corrections are accurate and not just a guess (especially when adding a given name to a woman listed only by her husband's name, be sure to match the dates). If you're not sure, even after checking other sources, then please don't make the change. Please go over the entire certificate and make all corrections you can including any that someone else did not add when they made corrections. This includes mistakes in places and dates of birth and death (that is until Ancestry allows corrections all categories add the correct info under explanation). The goal is to have the data as accurate as possible based on what is actually on the certificates. If you would like to join in a coordinated and comprehensive effort to make these corrections please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To help you overcome these problems in your search here are some of the techniques to help you find who you are looking for. While the settings on Ancestry for exact, similar, phonetic and soundex can help you can also use the wildcards * and ? in a name. An asterisk is a substitute for one or more letters and a question mark is a substitute for one letter. For example "phil*" covers all the spellings of Philip, Phillip, Philipp, Philippe, Philippina, etc or "S*n*der" will cover all spellings of Schneider, Snyder and anything in between. Unfortunately you cannot use the wildcards in place of the first letter of the name. Also remember you do not have to fill in every category or part of the search engine. You can leave off the either the first or last name, birth or death date, etc. You can even search by just the father's name or mother's maiden name or location.
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 seemed like a reasonable compromise.
Their concern was supposedly identity theft. While identity theft should be taken very seriously, however in quite a few states birth records as late as 2008 are available online.
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 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 which can lead to couples marrying without knowing they might be closely related (which has happened).
Has this effort 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 are starting to be online our mission is nearly complete. We hope we have also made 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 October 24, 2014)