Freedom of information worth fighting for

9 years ago

Vital records are the backbone of genealogical research. Locating the birth, marriage, and death records of our ancestors is the goal of every genealogist and without at least one of these records your research will be difficult if not impossible. This is especially true for new genealogists who don’t know a great deal about their family tree or the people in it.

For years genealogists had free access to most records. But more and more official holders of these essential records are slamming the door in the name of privacy and fear of identity theft. For the new genealogist this can effectively build a brick wall they can’t get past without great effort.

Every state has its own laws dealing with access to vital records and if you are researching outside of Maine you will need to discover what records are open to you. Some states have raised the bar so high that no one can obtain a record, not even of a close relative.

Genealogists have argued passionately that there are very few known attempts of identity theft through genealogy. Most would-be identity thieves aren’t going to spend hours searching through dusty archives, cranking microfilms, or trudging to town offices looking for the off-chance that they will stumble onto someone whose record looks promising. Indeed, until recently most identity theft was usually done by a family member or friend who already had access to the target’s financial information.

In the State of Maine easy access to vital records has changed. Right now all records prior to Jan. 1, 1892 are open to researchers. Municipal clerks have the power to deny access to these original records if the records are fragile or in danger from constant handling. Many records have been microfilmed and are available at the State Archives or through Family History Libraries.

Records from 1892 to today are restricted as follows: birth records are open only if they are 75 years or older; marriage records if they are 50 years or older; death records if they are 25 years or older, and fetal deaths if they are 50 years or older.

If you need or want copies of records that fall in the closed access period you have two major methods you can use. Both involve fees. In the first option, you must prove your line to your ancestor. That means you will need your own information — birth, marriage, and name change if applicable; your parents’ information especially if you are researching through your mother’s line and she changed her surname through marriage; and as far back as you need to link with the ancestor you are researching.

Go to the municipal office in question and you will be asked to fill out a form and you will need copies of all your records with you. In essence this option means you already know and can prove your genealogy.

But if you can’t prove the line because that is what you are trying to discover, you have one other option. The Department of Human Services’ Office of Vital Statistics offers a researcher card for sale which can open the doors to these records. If you visit and go to Forms you can download an application for a researcher card.

Fill out the application and submit it with a copy of a valid photo ID, and proof that you belong to an approved genealogical society such as the Maine Genealogical Society or one of its Chapters — the County in Aroostook or Wassebec in Piscataquis are examples. You will need to make a photocopy of your current membership card to send along with the copy of your ID. Don’t send originals as these will not be returned. The fee for the card is $50 and it is valid for one year from the date of issue. With it you can obtain non-certified copies of the records you need plus there is a bonus of free non-certified copies through the DHHS office.

If you want a large number of records the researcher card is the best way for you to go and the free records through DHHS will pay for the cost of the researcher card. If you only want a couple of records it would be easier to find someone with a researcher card and pay that person to get the records you need.

The Maine researcher card (not to be confused with the free card you get at the Maine State Archives) is also recognized at town clerk’s offices and you can obtain access to a non-certified copy there but remember you still have to pay the fee which is currently $10 per record.

Are you uncertain about the difference between a non-certified and a certified vital record? A non-certified record won’t have an official raised seal on it and cannot be used to obtain a driver’s license, passport, or allow you to use it for any other legal matter. It is merely a photocopy and will be stamped “Not To Be Used for Legal Purposes”. For a genealogist this is enough for you to move on in your research.

The office address of the Maine Vital Records Office is 220 Capitol Street, State House Station 11, Augusta, ME 04330. You can call them toll free at 1-888-664-9491 if you have questions about the process, acceptable genealogical society memberships, or need any other information. The website also has the text of the law and instructions for obtaining a Maine Researcher card.

Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. You can contact Nancy at