11 November 2014

Should photographing public records be FREE?

Line of Locks,  

The genesis for this post was a question posted in a Facebook group back in September (unfortunately, I didn’t happen to note which one and try as I might, I cannot re-find the original post.  If you participated in this thread or recognize the post, please drop a comment and I’ll add in a link).

It started when Allison Graves posted a link to Alabama state attorney: Photographing public records for free is ‘stealing’ which starts out by stating ...

In what would appear to be a case of government run amuck, at least two state agencies in Alabama won’t let people take pictures of public records, with an attorney for one equating the idea with stealing.

Allison queried Judy G Russell (The Legal Genealogist) and that got the comment ball rolling.

I, for one, don’t necessarily expect records, even public records, to necessarily be free – especially given that there are real costs to preserving said documents.  In North Carolina, many records are made available “at cost” and the Attorney General’s Office has a nifty publication, Guide to Open Government and Public Records where it is stated, page 2 “Any fee charged must not exceed the actual cost of searching for and making copies.  No fees may be charged for inspecting public records.”  Therefore, in NC, if you inspect a public record, this seems to suggest there is no cost for you to photograph such a record.  This document goes on to say, page 5 ...

For uncertified copies, agencies may not charge fees that are higher than the actual cost of making the copy.  “Actual cost” is defined as “direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles.”  The law does not give examples of actual costs but it does say that actual cost may not include costs the agency would have incurred if the copy request had not been made. That means that under most circumstances, fees may not include the labor costs of the agency employees who make the copies. However, if making the copies involves extensive clerical or supervisory assistance, the agency may charge a special service fee in addition to actual duplication costs.

This definitely holds true for the State Archives of North Carolina where you pay $.10 or more (dependent on format of copy – paper copy, digital copy, etc) for any copy made by them and there is no cost for you to photograph records.  In fact, you are required to photograph any “bound” volumes as they are not available to be copied (though one may request digital reproductions for a fee). 

That said, and because I have enjoyed this aspect of doing research in government entities in NC, if the budget of the community already encompasses those costs, then I, as a taxpayer, think can have some expectation to be able to photograph such for free.  Though, that assumes I can directly access the desired records with no assistance.  If assistance is needed, then it does seem reasonable that a fee might be involved.

Back to the Facebook post – some comments told of not being able to take picture of public records in WV or in county courthouses in New York State and that the Hawaii State Archives charges a fee if you want to photograph documents in their collection.  I have not verified any of these, and, as always, check the rules and regulations of any archives facility that you visit.

Feel that access to public documents in your community is too restrictive?  It’s not too early to start planning to participate in Sunshine Week, March 15-21, 2015.

What do you think?  Should you be able to freely photograph public records?

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