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Access Statement

Public Statement on Access

Prepared by the Maryland State Archives
February 2023

At the Maryland State Archives, the most frequent question we hear from our stakeholders is, “Why can’t I search and access these records from home?” Advances in technology have undoubtedly enabled historical organizations to take huge leaps forward in making many records available online, yet a vast amount of record material is still not available on the Internet. At the Maryland State Archives, we are very focused on making records both accessible and comprehensible within their historical and organizational context. Along with preserving the records, records access is a foundational reason for our existence.

The Maryland State Archives has long made online access to records a core mission. For example, our Guide to Government Records has 3,358,887 images (852 GB) of record material online. Our MDLandRec and Plats websites have a combined 275,167,990 images (62.7 TB) from our collections online. In total, we currently have 321 million files online (169 TB ).

However, image counts are only part of the story, because making records truly accessible involves more than just creating and uploading digital images. Archives’ staff are dedicated to providing the information needed to make sense of the records as an authoritative source, as well as the tools needed to locate any specific record among hundreds of millions. The Archives’ staff inventory records to provide detailed listings of documents within record series, and then create finding aids to assist in navigating the inventories. Web-based finding aids, topic guides, and video tutorials work in tandem to provide step by step directions on locating specific documents within our vast collections. For example, our death records finding aid walks users through both city and county death certificate indexes and certificate series, regardless of the agency that created them. This allows users to directly select specific years and locations of interest from the full vital records collections. The publication Researching African American Families provides a research guide to support and highlight important resources for the study of African American history. Our Searching Historical Land Records training video gives tips and guidance on how to use our online repository of digitized land records, MDLandRec. Staff produce these types of educational tools to better explain the most efficient way to locate specific documents and to share their professional expertise on what information each collection can provide to a researcher.

The Archives also has the legal authority to certify the record copies that we provide. This certification process establishes the facsimile we provide as a true and accurate copy of the original record, making it suitable for legal purposes. Please be advised that other private companies or interest groups that elect to put copies of these record materials online cannot certify them. These organizations also may hold copies that do not reflect any corrections, updates, or expungements that have legally occurred, and therefore cannot present the true copy of the record.

In fulfilling our commitment to make records more accessible, we are mindful of the critical importance of preserving privacy when necessary. The Laws of Maryland are specific about what records are, or are not, open to public access. Although these laws define whether a record must be provided when requested, they are generally silent on whether records must be made generally available online. In making decisions on what records to provide online, we must consider the impact general access might have on those whose identities are associated with the records.

One example of this type of consideration is our approach to online access to criminal case files. If there are no laws restricting access to a criminal case file, we will provide access to the file to anyone who requests it. A person could come into the Archives to see the file or place an order for copies of the record. However, our agency policy prohibits the placement of digitized criminal case files under 100 years old on the Internet. A great deal of deliberation went into the creation of this policy. We considered that case files often have very personal information about those involved in the case, including parties, victims, and witnesses. We also took into account the potential that the case might be legally expunged. Expungement requires the Archives to remove the case from public access. While we could technically remove access by removing a case file from our website, we know that once it is online there is a high chance that copies will be duplicated, cached, crawled and therefore exist beyond our care.

Making some records freely available online can also prove a threat to the safety of the public. For example, making modern marriage certificates and death certificates available online can open information, such as maiden names and Social Security numbers, to individuals who might exploit it for commercial or criminal purposes. To restate, our agency policy prohibits us from placing vital records under 100 years old on our website in order to provide protection and security for this personal information.

In addition to concerns about privacy, the effort to put records online is slowed by the very nature of the records themselves. Collections that have not been indexed are difficult to search until inventories have been created. Records that were manually indexed are not computer searchable until the index has been digitized. Documents may require organization or conservation treatment before they can safely undergo the scanning process. There are also technical challenges to making records available online. For example, adding new records for public access must be carefully planned and scheduled so that the increased volume or activity will not overwhelm our servers and take down access completely. Therefore, we are always moving forward in a planned, thoughtful manner to properly maintain current offerings while adding new digital content. All of these challenges, and the finite nature of Archives’ staffing, equipment, and budgetary resources, require that we prioritize and phase in our plans to add more records online to the many hundreds of millions of images already accessible.

As we phase in increased online resources, we continue to capitalize on all our other ways for making records accessible. We continually improve the process for ordering records from home. We have updated and simplified order forms for both online and mail in requests. We’ve also added options for ordering uncertified record copies for some document types, allowing researchers to purchase a digital reference image at a reduced rate. We provide research support via email and phone (410-260-6487) during business hours and we also have staff available to assist anyone in person in the Search Room, as well as new appointment options to make your visit as productive as possible.

We will continue to post additional series through our catalogs as our resources and capacity permit. If you are interested please see our current digitization priorities list, as highlighted in the Spring 2021 Edition of The Clamshell. We welcome stakeholder feedback on collections to consider for future digitization priorities. Please send these via email or through our feedback link. You can also materially support the Archives by making a donation to our 501(c)3 Friends group. We share our patrons’ desire for preservation and open public access to unrestricted collections and it remains our highest priority every day.

This web site is presented for reference purposes under the doctrine of fair use. When this material is used, in whole or in part, proper citation and credit must be attributed to the Maryland State Archives. PLEASE NOTE: The site may contain material from other sources which may be under copyright. Rights assessment, and full originating source citation, is the responsibility of the user.

© Copyright February 13, 2024 Maryland State Archives