PA Opens Up Important Family History Documents

James BeidlerToday, we’re honored to have James Beidler as a Guest Blogger for!  James was the executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania and, currently, writes a weekly genealogy newspaper column, “Roots and Branches.”

“Roots & Branches” runs weekly in the Lebanon Daily News (Mondays in print and on and Altoona Mirror (Sunday edition) newspapers. Please visit James M. Beidler’s website at Feel free to e-mail him at

Today’s column by Mr. Beidler discusses the brand new law that opens up important family history documents for the genealogist:


More than 11 years ago, a woman wrote to me from across the country in my position as executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania for help.

            Her young niece was trying to find out the name of her grandfather and wrote to the Pennsylvania Department of Health for the death certificates of the three brothers who were the most likely candidates.

            Naturally, the department wrote back that niece was not of the proper relationship to receive the certificate and that, even if she was, she needed to provide their dates of death.

            “Well, that’s exactly why I am requesting,” she wrote. “There must be another way.”

            That “another way” has finally become a reality with Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature turning Senate Bill 361 into Act 110 of 2011. This legislation turns death certificates (after 50 years) and birth certificates (after 105 years) become public records.

            The law takes effect in 60 days, so in mid-February the first certificates should be available for research at the Pennsylvania State Archives – about 7 million records in the case of the death records, reflecting the fact that the commonwealth was the nation’s second largest state in population for nearly all of the time since such certificates were first recorded in 1906.

            State Sen. Bob Robbins of Mercer County had introduced the bill earlier this year. “One of the Commonwealth’s greatest assets is our rich history and – in particular – the lives and legacies of the many Pennsylvanians who have contributed much to our state and our nation,” Robbins said. “With this new law, historians, researchers and even average citizens who simply want to track their family trees now can access these valuable and essential records.”

            Tim Gruber of People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access says he sent out well over 50,000 individual e-mails in the last few years in getting support for the effort to change the vital records law. Despite giving his organization an unpronounceable acronym (PaHR-Access for short – really?), he lined up the endorsements of nearly 500 groups in support of changing the vital records law. His group’s website gives additional information about its role at the URL,

            As things often go in politics, the drive for the new law was helped by a change in bureaucratic personnel. For years, the Department of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics was headed by Patricia Potrzebowski, who was staunchly opposed to any changes that would take the chains off these records.

            When I met with her and other Health Department representatives at the instigation of Robbins’ staffer Michael Hengst in 2001, she recited the same phony “privacy” issues that weren’t a problem in other states as year after year more of them put indexes and records online. It was clear that while she was part of the Pennsylvania bureaucracy, it would be difficult to well-nigh impossible to get the vital records law changed.

            As an interesting side note, the law really didn’t even need to be changed; the old law always had an exception allowing access to the birth and death certificates for research. Potrzebowski’s lame response when asked why this didn’t apply to genealogical research: “Oh, well, uh, we always have interpreted that as health research.”

            That interpretation of the law could have been changed in a heartbeat, but Potrzebowski didn’t want to do that and as long as the bureaucracy was opposed to changes in the law, most legislators deferred to them.

            About a year ago, Potrzebowski became executive director of a group called the “National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems” (NAPHSIS for short – an easy acronym to pronounce but doesn’t it make you immediately laugh and say to yourself “Talk about an organization that needs to desperately search for a reason to exist!”).

In her current post, Potrzebowski undoubtedly will continue to fight against reasonable access to vital records – but, thankfully, she was no longer an obstacle in Pennsylvania.

            With the bureaucracy less dead-set against change, Robbins’ bill started gaining momentum earlier this year. Senate Bill 361 received unanimous support from both the Senate (48-0) and House (194-0).

            After more than a decade, my e-mail correspondent’s niece has undoubtedly grown up, but finally she’ll be able to get at the Pennsylvania records of her heritage.


Thanks, again, to Mr. Beidler for this information.  To our readers, let us know your thoughts on this new law – and how you think it’ll help your research.

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