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People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access (PaHR-Access) www.pahr-access.org
We are a grassroots effort to have Pennsylvania make its older state birth and death certificates available online
Thank you for helping us succeed in changing Pennsylvania law to make birth certificates over 105 years old and death certificates more than 50 years old become open records. Our mission is nearly complete as Ancestry.com has, as of April 18th, 2014, started to have these records online. When all the records are online Pennsylvania will have gone from being one of the most restricted to one of the better states when it came to accessing these records. Without your help we would still be stuck with the old extremely restricted access and wishing it were different!
This website had been completely changed and updated to reflect the new Vital Records Law Senate Bill 361 (Act 110 of 2011) signed into law Dec 15th, 2011 and went into effect February 13th, 2012. It has been once again changed in April 2014 to reflect the fact that the records are now online courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives through Ancestry.com. See Our Goal and Frequently Asked Questions for more on all of these changes.
- Our Goal (accessing the records on Ancestry)
- News and Progress Report (including Organizational Endorsements) (birth certificates now available online)
Our Goal: (also see FAQ)
Our main goal all along has been to have Pennsylvania state death certificates after 50 years and possibly birth certificates after 100 years become open records and AVAILABLE ONLINE. We completed the first phase of our goal when Pennsylvania Vital Records Bill SB-361 (Act 110 of 2011) went into effect law on February 13th, 2012 and made all death certificates over 50 years old and birth certificates over 105 years old open records (the latter figure was part of a compromise). The new law also transfers the certificates to the Pennsylvania State Archives as they become open records each year. The completion of the second phase of our goal started when Ancestry.com put the first batch of records online as of April 18th, 2014. Our ultimate goal will be complete when the records are available online free to all. However, contrary to what we were led to believe the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will not be making these records available online to all for free anytime soon.
Ancestry is currently working on indexing the birth records from 1911 and the death records from 1965. No word on when they will be available online. This is the overall schedule for the records on Ancestry:
April 18, 2014 - Ancestry.com put the first batch of Pennsylvania state death records of online (1906-1924).
June 24, 2014 -
second batch of Pennsylvania state
death records of online
October 24, 2014 - Ancestry.com put the third patch of Pennsylvania state death records of online (1945-63).
March 18, 2015 – Ancestry.com put Pennsylvania state birth records online (1906-1908).
November 1, 2016 - Ancestry.com put Pennsylvania state birth records from 1909-1910 and death records from 1964 online.
January 30, 2018 - Ancestry.com put Pennsylvania state death records from 1965-1966 online.
Pennsylvania residents (and only Pennsylvania residents) have free access to this particular database as they do with other Pennsylvania State Archives records already scanned and made available online by Ancestry. Free access for Pennsylvania residents is accomplished by registering online at no cost through this link: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/. Pennsylvania residents that already have a subscription to Ancestry do not need to do anything as long as they continue to have a subscription to Ancestry. Out of state residents do need a subscription to Ancestry to access these records. However, many libraries and research centers everywhere provide free access to Ancestry.
With the records in an online database it is now possible to search for an open record birth or death certificate using various bits of data such as by the first name, surname, date or place of birth or death, and/or parents' names including mother's maiden name. This is most valuable to researchers who do not know when or where the person died or even what their surname was when they died or how it was actually 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. For instance if they misspelled names and locations, gave the wrong parents' names, date or places of birth, etc it will be that way on the certificates. For example occasionally the date of birth and death are the same even though the person, for instance is listed as 89 years old or the informant's parents' names are listed instead of the deceased's. The most reliable information will be the place and date of death. In a few cases a correction or other information was added to the certificate on a separate sheet so we suggest you check the image before and after the image of each certificate (see the rectangle box near the bottom of the page indicating the image number - click on < or > to move to the next image). This is especially true of birth certificates which were often corrected.
Aside from obvious mistakes made by Ancestry in indexing the death certificates, which are innumerable, the most notable problem (and in fairness to Ancestry) is in reading the handwriting and mistakes on the certificates themselves Most of the indexing mistakes involve very easily confusing the lower case n with u, r with s or c or v, a with o, g with y and z, b with h, f and p, upper case L with S, upper case G, F and Y, etc. The letters f, g, p, q, y, z are very, very often misindexed (keep all of this in mind while you search). Because of this problem and Ancestry's very low indexing standards a person like Nathan Kostenbauder is misindexed as Nachau Kostercande, Nicolas Fulmer as Mebalas Fulsaas or David Hahn as Dovul Helm. However, many of mistakes are entirely Ancestry's and frankly some of them are absurd such as listing the street address or location of death as the person's name or listing infants and stillborns as 100 years old. Other mistakes made by Ancestry include repeatedly listing a township in the wrong county or, for example, listing Schuyler County instead of Schuylkill County despite what is actually written on the certificate. Judging by our fairly large sampling about half of all certificates have at least one mistake with many loaded with serious mistakes including some where the certificate was completely filled in but Ancestry failed to index them all. But since this database will eventually be handed over to the Pennsylvania State Archives and to help other researchers find who they are looking for, please correct any and all mistakes you see if you can. However, in doing so please be sure your corrections are true and accurate. We also suggest avoiding the temptation to add information not on the certificate such as a missing middle name or exact place of birth just for the sake of adding more information. Also don't do as some have of changing the year of death based on the age at death. The year of death will almost always be correct and no more than a year off. However, we do recommend adding the correct spelling of the person's name particularly if it is different from the spelling on their grave marker or simply grossly misspelled so that others can more easily find their death certificate. By the way there are some death certificates from December 1905 and a few well before 1906. Apparently death certificates were created for these few individuals probably for legal purposes, but they are few in number.
Keep in mind that many of the Pennsylvania birth records now available online are loaded with mistakes and omissions. Quite often the child's given name was not recorded or the name listed was not the name the family used (perhaps the parents changed their minds or the person filling in the certificate misunderstood the parents intensions). We have also noticed that the parents' places of birth are often incorrect. Then there are the mountain of mistakes Ancestry made in indexing the records. Aside from innumerable incidences of simply misreading the records by Ancestry there are also quite a few incidences of Ancestry leaving information out of the index such as parts of names and locations. So don't be surprised if you have trouble finding the person you are looking for even when you have an exact date and place of birth. Unfortunately Ancestry only allows customers to suggest changes to the information pertaining to the child. Customers are unable to directly suggest changes concerning the information about the parents. Also keep in mind that sometimes people had their birth certificates corrected. The record of these corrections can usually be found by looking at the image before or after the image of birth certificate for that person. In other words we suggest looking at the image before and after the image of the birth certificate to make sure you view the complete record of their birth.
Here are some techniques to help you to 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 "ph?l*" covers all the spellings of Philip, Phillip, Philipp, Philippe, Philippina, etc and "s*n*der" covers all spellings of Schneider, Snyder and anything in between. While using wildcards can be very helpful, it can sometimes also give you many names you're not interested in just as with soundex. 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, location, etc. You can even search by just the father's name or mother's maiden name. For example you can enter just the person's first name, location of death, approximate years of birth or death and father's first name.
When all else fails you can check the original birth and death indices created by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. There is no modern search engine and so you have to manually check each index for the persons you are looking for. However, the data and spellings will be fairly accurate and reliable. Using the data from the indices should help you find who you are looking for despite Ancestry's poor indexing standards. Also the chances are great that if you cannot find the person you are looking for (keeping in mind any spelling variation) in these original indices that they probably did not have a Pennsylvania birth or death certificate.
As part of getting better access some people would like to see an online index of deaths less than 50 years old. This however might require another change in the law. But 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. For a better understanding of this issue please read Frequently Asked Questions. Others would also like to see better access to adoption records which are sealed literally indefinitely no matter how long ago the adoption took place. At the very least adoption records should become open records after 100 years. Organizations like the Adoption Congress are working on improving access to adoption records in Pennsylvania. Aside from adoption records in general and birth and death records that are not open records very few Pennsylvania government records are not open to the public.
For those who are interested in helping to get more Pennsylvania vital records online familysearch.org (yes, the Mormons or if you prefer LDS) is currently indexing (data extraction) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania marriages from 1677-1950. Helping with indexing is open to all and you do not need to be a member of LDS and you will not be solicited. You only need to establish an account, which is free, and download the free software. Once you get the hang of it indexing is fairly easy. Just remember accuracy is important.
The more you do and the more people get involved in this project the faster it will be completed and the records put online. Please try to be accurate as it will make it easier for people to find who they are looking for (most of you have probably experienced the frustration of trying to find someone who has been misindexed). Keep in mind couples sometimes got their marriage licenses outside of the county they lived in so these records also involve marriages for people outside of Philadelphia. Currently they are doing marriages from the early 1900's. If you have have any questions let us know. Keep in mind if you become frustrated with a particular set of records you can send them back for someone else to complete (so don't feel you have to complete that particular set of records before you can ever do another set). Some of these records are already online and access to them is always free.
Familysearch.org has many other indexing (data extraction) projects if you are interested. They continually add new projects from around the world if you don't see any you currently are not interested in.
PaHR-Access (People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access) is strictly a grassroots organization started in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania in August of 2007. It was first known as People for Better Access to Pennsylvania Historical Records (PBAPHR). The name change took place in early November 2007 to allow for a more pronounceable acronym (i.e. par-access).
We are ordinary people who literally want to have better access to Pennsylvania's historical records. Our main concern is Pennsylvania state birth and death certificates. There are no membership dues merely the willingness to help in this effort. PaHR-Access is not affiliated with any political, commercial, institutional or religious organization whatsoever. Website contents designed and composed by Tim Gruber with input from Dale Berger and others. If you have any questions or concerns please contact our spokesperson:
We would enjoy hearing from you
December 1, 2007
(updated January 1, 2019)