Bill would limit access to historical records

Posted March 14, 2010, at 5:23 p.m.

A proposed bill that would close a century of Maine birth, marriage and death certificates for genealogical and historical research is “not a restriction,” according to the deputy director of the Maine Center for Disease Control.

Christine Zukas-Lessard said on March 11 that LD 1781 would allow vital records in the past 100 years to continue to be accessed by those “with a legitimate interest” in them.

So let’s look at what stays the same and what changes from page 4 of LD 1781:

— Vital records would be available to the person on the record and to his attorney or agent. That’s the rule now, but many researchers can tell you this has not been strictly enforced, and they have for years been doing genealogy for other people or organizations.

— Vital records would be available to the person’s “spouse, registered domestic partner, descendants, parents or guardians.” This is an addition, compared with current law.

— Informational copies of vital records, which are not certified and cannot be used as proof, would be available to the public only “after 100 years from the date” of the birth, marriage or death. This is new.

And it’s of real concern to genealogists who work on family histories and town histories, or help people trace their ancestry to join lineage groups such as the Mayflower Society or the Daughters of the American Revolution.

So what would be the option for a genealogist who is not the person or his spouse, descendant or parent?

Under LD 1781, you’d have to be “the agent” for anybody you were researching.

Such people would have to provide “a notarized letter,” Zukas-Lessard said, from someone entitled to the record. She emphasized that such a requirement would be “not a restriction,” but could be termed “an added burden.”

As for the additional cost to researchers of getting a notarized letter for each person they might be helping with their genealogy, she said, “they could charge that family.”

Even if you were researching for a family history or a town history, or helping out your historical society or the Maine Old Cemetery Association on your own time, you’d still have to be “an agent,” looking not for an informational copy but a certified record — which you’d also have to pay for.

No one attended the March 3 hearing on the bill, said Zukas-Lessard, adding that LD 1781 was explained there.

Genealogists have told me they didn’t know about it.

LD 1781 is listed as “An Act to Allow Electronic Filing of Vital Records and Closing of Vital Records to Guard Against Fraud.”

But, if you have ever obtained an “informational copy” of a record from the state, you’ll note that it is stamped “Not to be used as legal document.”

The state has stamping informational copies that way for at least 35 years. Moreover:

— Maine birth, marriage and death records up to 1955 are already on microfilm not only at the Maine State Archives, but also at several libraries in Maine, including Fogler Library on the University of Maine campus in Orono.

— The secretary of state has the Maine Marriage Index, 1892-1966, 1977-1996, online at www.maine.gov/sos/arc. Maine marriages also have been published on CD.

— The secretary of state has the Maine Death Index, 1960-1966, online free, including date and location of death. Visit www.maine.gov/sos/arc.

These three resources are already “out there,” Zukas-Lessard acknowledged.

And the bill would not affect federal and other records.

— The Social Security Death Index, which covers the United States from the 1960s to the present, is online free at http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com.

— The U.S. Census records for 1920 and 1930 are public. Those records for Maine are free to look at on microfilm at Maine State Archives and at the University of Maine. The records give name, age and state of birth for every person in the United States, plus place of birth for each person’s parents.

— Many newspapers have recent obituaries available online. See the past six years of Bangor Daily News obituaries. Click on Obituaries, then on Obituary Archives.

In addition to genealogists, LD 1781 could have an impact on the tourist industry. People stay in motels, eat in restaurants, stop at gas stations and shop while they are here researching their families — not just their grandparents and so forth, but uncles and aunts and second cousins whose records may give them clues.

The bill hasn’t come to the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate yet, and sponsor Rep. Anne Perry of Calais said on March 11 that the bill still has to go through “fiscal reviewers” to see what costs would be involved.

So if you have an opinion on LD 1781, there’s time to let your state representative and senator know.

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The ninth Franco-American Day will be held Wednesday, March 17, at the Capitol in Augusta. Yes, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s also part of International Francophone Week, celebrated March 15-22 around the world.

Melanie Saucier of Fort Kent, who is 14, will sing French music in the Hall of Flags. She also will sing the American, Canadian and French national anthems later that day in both the House and the Senate — “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “O Canada” and “La Marseillaise.”

Nominees to the Hall of Fame will be announced during a press conference at 11:30 a.m.

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The Penobscot County Genealogical Society will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 17, in the Lecture Hall at Bangor Public Library, 145 Harlow St.

Dr. Janet TeBrake, a lecturer in history at the University of Maine, will speak about Irish history and a bit on St. Patrick.

All are welcome to attend, and refreshments will be served. There is an elevator to the third floor inside the children’s department entrance.

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The Finnish Heritage House will hold its spring meeting at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 20, in Jura Hall at the Finnish Congregation Church. The meeting is open to all.

Send genealogy queries to Family Ties, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402; or e-mail queries to familyti@bangordailynews.net.

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