Tag Archives: genealogybank

Changes in Access to the SSDI and Vital Records

I’ve been meaning to write this post for the past few weeks, and am sorry I did not do so earlier. There have been a number of changes in access to data of interest to genealogists in the United States going on, and in some cases this can seriously effect the ability of people to do research.

One major source of information for genealogists has been the Social Security Death Master File, usually referred to online as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The Death Master File is considered by law to be a public document, and lists all people who applied for a social security number (with an SS-5 form) and subsequently had their deaths reported to the Social Security Administration. Information on the SS-5 form can frequently be very useful to family researchers, as it usually lists the names of the parents of the applicant.

SSA increases delay in receiving names of parents

Last month, the Social Security Administration, without any announcement, extended the amount of time one must wait to get the names of parents on a social security application from 70 to 100 years from the applicant’s birth. In other words, if last month you could order an SS-5 form of someone born in 1941 and find out their parent’s names, now you will not be able to order that record until 2041. Put another way, you can only order records today for people born before 1911. In fact, the reality is worse, you can order the SS-5 and they will charge you for it, but they will just white-out the parent’s names which is probably the only good reason to order an SS-5 anyways.

Reduction in State records in the DMF

Another change also took effect last month, when it was announced that some state death records would no longer be incorporated into the Death Master File, and over 4 million existing records would be expunged from the existing file. The reason for this is a claim that state records have different privacy rules, and thus cannot be incorporated into the public Death Master File. This also means nearly a million records a year will no longer be added to the Death Master File going forward (over over 30% of records that would have been added). Why this wasn’t recognized for the past decades this file has been available is not mentioned. Additionally, it seems the Social Security Administration has also dropped last residence zip codes from the information they add to the Death Master File. When dealing with people with common names in large cities, zip codes are very useful in figuring out which record it the correct record.

Massachusetts tries to go against hundreds of years of open access rules

In my home state of Massachusetts, a bill (H.603) was introduced earlier this year in the state legislature to restrict access to birth records in the state. Massachusetts has always been an open access state when it comes to public records, so this would actually be the first time that access to vital records have been restricted in Massachusetts. Open access to vital records can be seen as an easy way for identity thieves to steal information, or as an easy way to prove the legitimacy of identities. This reckless attempt to restrict access to these records is not just a setback for genealogists, but will restrict access to those people looking to build a family medical history (needed for some inherited diseases) and also restrict the ability of military personnel to track down next-of-kin of soldiers, something the genealogical community has helped the military with for many years. It’s also a bit of political hackery, as it doesn’t actually address the issue of identity theft.

Good politics?

It’s not clear to me why this has become a political issue for some, but I guess seeming to protect people’s privacy (while not actually doing anything about it) is good politics. Politicians love to scare people and tell them that their identities will be stolen if the government doesn’t crack down on identity theft. Except, they don’t actually crack down on identity theft, such as addressing how its possible for someone to file for taxes with the social security number of a deceased person. You’d think the IRS would have access to the Death Master File, and could automatically check social security numbers against filings, but that would be too simple a solution (and would actually put the onus of checking for fraud with a government agency).

The KIDS Act of 2011

In steps Representative Samuel Johnson (R-TX) and his Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011. This bill, also knows as the KIDS Act, would make it illegal for the government to release the Death Master File at all. Does it address fraud at all? No. Does it prevent government employees from sharing information with identity thieves? No. How about legislating 10 year jail sentences for government employees who release personal information to anyone unauthorized to view it? Regardless, this bill and some of the press coverage of identify thefts that led up to it, has scared various genealogy companies into cutting back on access to the SSDI.

My sister’s story

It’s worth noting a story from when I was a child in Boston. As I recall, my teenage sister had gone to get her driver’s license and it was supposed to be mailed to her. Except it never arrived. Eventually she contacted the RMV and they sent her her license. What happened to the original one? Nobody knew. Well, someone knew. One day we get a call from a branch of our bank the next town over. This was when people still went to the bank to, you know, do bank stuff. A woman had arrived each day over the past several days and deposited checks into my sisters account adding up to a lot of money. Before those checks could clear, she arrived again at the teller she had been depositing those checks with, and asked to make a withdrawal. She had a driver’s license with her picture on it, but my sister’s name. The teller didn’t know my sister, but she thought the woman looks a bit older than my sister’s age as listed on the license. The teller asked the woman to wait a moment, and brought the license to the branch manager. The manager had previously worked in the branch my family went to, and actually knew my family, and knew this was not my sister. It was an interesting scam, of course. Depositing checks with the teller so the teller would associate her with depositing money into the account, then using a fake license to withdraw money from the account. If the branch manager hadn’t previously worked at the branch in our town back in those days when branch managers knew their customers, the woman might have gotten away with it. In the end, I don’t remember if that woman was arrested, or got away. I do remember being told they had tracked the scam back to the RMV where multiple licenses had been forged with incorrect photos. I don’t know how much the RMV worker was paid to forge my sister’s license, nor what the thought process was that led them to risk doing that, but presumably if there had been harsh laws against this, they would not have done it.

I’ll guess most of the people reading this haven’t seen the movie this comes from, but this had to be done:

That must have been when Samuel Johnson was still trying to get into the college parties…

For those who are lost, I’ll share this clip from the movie Superbad:

That isn’t high art, and that clip is highly edited from the original (this is a family blog after all), but I felt it necessary to insert a little comic relief here. Back to the issue at hand…

The easiest site to search SSDI online has long been Rootsweb, which is a genealogy community site that has been hosted and run by Ancestry.com for more than 10 years. The Rootsweb SSDI page just days ago changed from a site that allowed full searching of the SSDI, to the following message:

Due to sensitivities around the information in this database, the Social Security Death Index collection is not available on our free Rootsweb service but is accessible to search on Ancestry.com. Visit the Social Security Death Index page to be directly connected to this collection

If you follow the link to Ancestry.com’s own SSDI search page, you can search and get results, but unless you are a member of Ancestry.com, you only get partial information. Even if you have an Ancestry.com subscription, they’ve further cut back on the information available in their SSDI database, as they describe:

Why can’t I see the Social Security Number? If the Social Security Number is not visible on the record index it is because Ancestry.com does not provide this number in the Social Security Death Index for any person that has passed away within the past 10 years.”

This is a bit of pre-emptive work it seems, to keep the politicians off their backs.

Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank cut back on SSDI access

Ancestry.com is not the only company to cut back on access to the SSDI. GenealogyBank has eliminated the social security numbers from its database altogether. Genealogybank offers free searching of their SSDI database, but you must register for the site in order to see the results. Even if you’re a subscriber, there are no social security numbers listed in their database at all now. GenealogyBank says they removed all social security numbers after people called them and explained they were erroneously in the SSDI and everyone could access their social security numbers through the GenealogyBank database. One article I read online estimated that out of the 2.8 million new entries added each year, some 14,000 entries are added for people who are still living. That seems a clear statistical estimate (half of one percent), and I have no idea how they came up with that number, nor how many of those false entries get removed from the database in subsequent revisions. I’m not saying people are not horribly effected by these mistakes in the SSDI, but maybe the solution is to fix the processes that introduce those mistakes? Any even if there are 14,000 mistakes a year, no one has shown that this has led to a single stolen identity as far as I can tell.

FamilySearch.org still offering SSDI access…for now…

FamilySearch.org still offers free searching of their SSDI database, without registration, and still shows the social security numbers of everyone in their database. I don’t know how long that will last, however. Personally, I recommend everyone search the FamilySearch.org database and mark down the information they have on each person in your tree. This isn’t only the social security number, but the birth date, death date, place of issuance (of the social security number), last residence, and place where last benefit was sent. All of this information can be useful in genealogy research, and while these companies are removing the social security numbers now as a pre-emptive attempt to prevent further regulation, if regulation does arrive from the legislature, as written now it would eliminate access to all of this information (not just the social security numbers). Therefore, I suggest making a list of those people in your database who were working in the US after 1935, and going through the FamilySearch.org SSDI Database and copy all the information you can, while you still can…

Also, for a comparison of the Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org SSDI databases (written before the changes), see this article from Ancestry Insider called SSDI: Ancestry.com vs. FamilySearch.org. If you have a subscription to Ancestry.com, it might be worth it to take a look at their database as well, to see if they list the ZIP code for earlier entries in the database.

Genealogy Basics: Historical Newspapers

There is a wealth of genealogical information buried in the stacks of old newspaper stored in various libraries worldwide. Depending on whether you live in the same place as your ancestors, accessing these archives could be exceedingly difficult, and of course physical newspapers don’t have a search button. Nowadays, however, there are a number of initiatives to digitally scan and make accessible newspapers large and small from across the world. Some of these efforts are commercial and require payment to use, while some are funded through non-profit organizations or universities and are free to access online. In the past there were efforts to index obituaries, and while obituaries can contain many genealogical clues inside, these new fully searchable newspaper databases can contain much more information.

It’s been my observation that if you had family living in a small communities, then these searchable newspapers can be even more useful. Small community newspapers tend to cover a lot more of what is going on with people in the community than larger community papers that cover news on a much smaller percentage of people in the community.

GenealogyBank.com

On of the best resources I’ve found for searching newspapers across the US is GenealogyBank.com. It is a commercial service, but they earn their money by constantly adding new content to the site. They currently have over 4500 newspapers online. It costs about $56/year for the service (go to their subscribe page, then try to close the page and it will offer to a 20% discount bringing the annual price from $70 to $56) which I think is quite reasonable. You can also try it out for 30 days for free. In addition to newspapers, they also have some historical books, documents and their own version of the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

A newspaper with red box around relevant article

Annotating a PDF

The best part is once you find a newspaper page with something relevant to you, you can simply down the page as a PDF to your computer. What I do when sharing a page with relatives is I open the PDF and use the built-in annotation features of the program I use (I use Preview on the Mac, but Adobe Reader should be able to do the same thing) to create a red box around the part of the page that contains information on my relative. The reason this can be important is that if you’re sending a large newspaper page it can be hard sometimes to find the part of the page that contains the information you’re trying to relay, especially with older newspapers that can be very dense and hard to read. See an example to the right.

Naming Newspaper Images

Another tip when dealing with organizing these pages is to prefix the file name with the date it was published. I use this technique on many types of documents, but it is particularly useful for newspapers. In the case of one family group, I found about 50 newspaper articles that mention them over a span of 70 years. When I download the newspaper page I name it something like:

19171119 Aug Chron – Pinkey Silver app for citizenship.pdf

First you have the date, formatted as YYYYMMDD which is easily sortable. I then add the newspaper name – in this case the Augusta Chronicle (from Georgia) and then a short summary of what is in the article. Thankfully we’re not restricted to something like FILENAME.PDF like in the old days. As you collect newspaper articles from different sources, you can put them all in one directory and see them easily sorted by date of publication, see which papers they came from and who is mentioned in them. It makes finding the article you’re looking for much easier later on when you want to send that one relevant article to a relative.

Other Newspaper Sources

GenealogyBank.com is not the only game in town. There are other commercial services, some larger genealogy websites like Ancestry.com also have newspaper archives included in their databases, but more interesting I think are the smaller initiatives that you need to really search for in small towns and on the state level. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is a project in the state of Georgia called the Digital Library of Georgia run by the university system of Georgia. The site contains digital archives of several local Georgia newspapers, searchable and viewable using the DjVu plug-in. You need to install a DjVu plug-in for your browser in order to use these archives, but once you install it it’s fairly easy to use. It’s not as easy as being able to view the newspapers online and then download a PDF, however. You can download the DjVu files (which are very small) or convert them to TIFF files (which are absurdly large in this case). If you do have the DjVu plug-in convert the image to a TIFF, keep in mind that it does not use compression. Simply opening the TIFF in an image editor and activating LZW compression for the TIFF will save a lot of space, and won’t affect the quality of the image.

Selecting LZW compression for a TIFF

In Preview on the Mac all you do is open the file, select Save As… from the File Menu, select LZW from the Compression menu as shown in the image on the left.

You can also save the image as a JPEG or whatever format you want. I would suggest perhaps converting the image to a JPEG when e-mailing the image to a relative, but you may find it is not as readable asit is as a DjVu or a TIFF image, because the DjVu is highly compressed (much more than JPEG) and when you expand it out to a TIFF you still have all the artifacts left from the DjVU compression. When you then re-compress it as a JPEG you get new compression artifacts, which mix with the DjVu ones.

Another similar newspaper archive effort I’ve come across is the Northern New York Historical Newspapers project run by the Northern New York Library Network. I’m sure there are many more.

Wikipedia has a List of online newspaper archives which is worth checking out.

Google operates a newspaper archive search where you can many articles, some of whcih you need to pay to read.

The Library of Congress has a project called Chronicling America where you can search historical newspapers between the years 1860 and 1922.

You should also try searching for newspaper archives on your favorite search engine. New ones seem to pop up all the time, so if you don’t find one now, try again another time.

Jewish Newspapers Online

For Jewish researchers I will point out a few interesting examples of newspaper and magazine archives I’ve come across.

There is the Southern Israelite, covering the year between 1929 and 1986, part of the previously mentioned Digital Library of Georgia. Note that while it was published in Georgia, it does cover some other southern states, so if your Jewish family lived down south, you might find some news listed in this paper.

There is also the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, which includes three different Jewish community newspapers published between 1895 and the present.

The Ohio Memory project has put up The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, covering the years 1922 until 1994.

For Chicago, there is a local Jewish paper called The Sentinel, covering the years 1911 through 1949.

One very interesting project is run at the National Library of Israel, called the Historical Jewish Press. This project currently includes twenty newspapers, some going back to the mid-19th century, including over 400,000 pages. The languages of the papers include Hebrew, French, Hungarian and English. The only English newspaper in the project right now is the Palestine Post, the original name of what is now the Jerusalem Post, and it covers the years 1932-1950 (the years before it changed its name to the Jerusalem Post). The French papers include one from France, but also papers from Morocco and Egypt. The Hebrew papers include ones from Israel, but also papers from Tsarist Russia and one published in Prussia, Poland and Austria.

Please add what you know or what you find to the comments

Please, if you know of other good online newspaper sites, mention them in the comments. You can also share your success stories in the comments.

For an example of how the information in these types of records are not always reliable, read my earlier post People lie, and so do documents which discussed confirming information found in two obituaries which I found through one of these online newspaper archives.