The past is present: The good and bad in saving city records

·2 min read

The city’s little-known, little-appreciated but vitally important Department of Records and Information Services this week unveiled a quite wonderful, free, online archive of more than 9 million birth certificates, marriage certificates and death certificates. If you don’t mind falling down rabbit holes, go ahead and jump in.

The project, started nine years ago, has completed scanning in 70% of the 13 million documents, which span from the Civil War to the late 1940s. The day they chose for the big debut, James Madison’s birthday, is called National Freedom of Information Day for our fourth president’s belief in open government. Today marks the end of annual Sunshine Week, promoting public transparency.

No, neither Donald Trump’s short nor long-form 1946 birth certificate is there, as available birth records stop at 1909. And none of his three marriages are findable, as wedding documents end in 1949. We had hoped to see the birth record of the other NYC-born president, Teddy Roosevelt, but it’s not yet digitized. We were delighted, however, to view the March 17, 1905, marriage certificate of his niece Eleanor to her fifth cousin once removed Franklin; President Teddy was a witness who signed the license. Three great Roosevelts trump one terrible Trump.

Historical government records matter, and not just for fun. With much of the public’s business carried on online, web pages, emails and social media postings should be saved and easily accessible. But when Eric Adams took over from Bill de Blasio, the old mayor’s thousands of online press releases and speeches and other documents fell out of easy public view. The same when new officials took over as borough president or district attorney.

Thankfully, any web page ending in nyc.gov is automatically archived (though hard to find). But three beeps, in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island use non-city web addresses. So what happened to eight years of Adams’ tenure in Brooklyn? And the district attorneys aren’t even covered, being state offices.

Recent presidential administrations’ digital footprints remain easily accessible online, via a simple click. The city should find a way to do something similar for ex-officeholders.