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  • What are public records and archival data?

  • Why use public records and archival data?

  • Who should use public records and archival data, and when?

  • How do you use public records and archival data?

Suppose you were conducting a community housing assessment, and wanted to know how many units of affordable housing actually existed in your community. Or suppose you were concerned with teen pregnancy, and wanted to know how the percentage of births to teens in your community compared to that in other similar communities in the state. Suppose you needed to know how many veterans lived in the community, or how many children lived in families below the poverty line. How would you find the answers to these questions?

You could simply ask everyone - go from house to house, for instance, asking the value of the property, the amount of the mortgage or rent, whether the rent was subsidized, and how difficult it was for the owner or renter to keep up the monthly payments that allowed her to stay there. You might find, however that people weren't thrilled about answering your questions. You'd also find, especially if your community is a large city, that it would simply take too long and require too many people to find the answer that way.

Fortunately, someone else has already done it for you. Various government agencies - the Census Bureau, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the local housing authority - collect information on affordable housing and housing values, and make it available to the public. You can answer all of the questions above, and countless others, by exploring the records or archives of government or other agencies, institutions, and organizations that collect information and provide it to the general public.

The backbone of a truly useful community assessment is accurate information, especially when collecting that information involves questioning overwhelming numbers of people or comparing large blocks of data. You're likely to find yourself searching for answers in the records and archives of those entities - particularly government agencies and departments - that have resources large enough for the task. This section will help you understand what might be in those records and archives, and how to find and use the ones you need.

What are public records and archival data?

Public records

Public records are any records of a public body that are open to citizens by law. In the U.S., these include most records of branches and agencies of government at the federal, state, and local levels. Some exceptions are:

  • Records that relate to national security. These are the classified documents that the government may refuse to produce in court cases or for Congressional hearings. They might embrace such topics as military plans and diplomatic strategy.
  • Records whose contents, if made public, could invade the privacy of an individual who has broken no laws (personnel files, for instance, or income tax records).
  • Police and other records that relate to the investigation of a yet-unsolved crime.

In addition, records not covered by open information laws need not be accessible to the public. The specifics of these laws vary somewhat from state to state. The Freedom of Information Act (see box below) covers the Administration, but not Congress, so that body has a great deal of discretion in what it chooses to make public.

Government agencies and departments sometimes resist supplying records that are, in fact, legally available to the public. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which covers the federal Executive branch of government (i.e., the President, his cabinet, and federal agencies that fall under cabinet departments), makes it possible to obtain these records (although it may take a long time). In addition to the federal statute, most states also have laws modeled on FOIA.

The contents of public records may surprise you. They include census data and, of course, all laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels, but they also include a vast store of other information, such as corporate filings (annual reports and other information), the results of environmental compliance audits and reports, and records of licenses and permits.

Each level of government, and each state, may have different regulations about what kinds of reports have to be filed, and about whether and how those reports are made public. All individuals and corporations, however, are subject to the federal regulations that apply to them.

A colleague of the author has recently been engaged in research about his own home town. He reports that it was easy to obtain at least the following information about current residents:

  • The name, address, age, and occupation of every resident of the town. (In his state, such a listing is in fact required annually by state law, and is freely available at the local library).
  • How long each resident has lived at his current address.
  • Listed phone numbers, together with names, for any street address in the town.
  • A list of legal owners of all property in the town.
  • Detailed information about the specific features of each property, including last previous sale and current assessed value.
  • A list of all registered voters in the town.
  • A similar list of all voters who voted in any particular recent election (this list indicates that they voted, but not how they voted).
  • Maps of each block, with property line detail; historical street maps; zoning maps; maps by street showing specific demographic characteristics; topographical maps; floodplain maps.
  • Contributors to statewide and federal electoral campaigns (donations of roughly $100 and up).
  • Whether a given resident owns a dog, or is a veteran.

All of this information - and more - exists as public records, and may typically be obtained free of charge (or at minimum cost) and with relative ease.

All of this demonstrates that a careful and persistent search of public records is likely to find you something that is at least close to what you are looking for.

Records may be legally available, but that doesn't mean they have to be free. Many government bodies at all levels charge fees for granting access to records, or charge for supplying copies. In some cases, the law actually specifies that they must charge fees in order to recover the cost of printing and sending the documents or of digitizing them so they can be available on line. Fees are generally reasonable, and allow most citizens to see the records they wish to.

Archives and archival data

Archives and archival data may or may not have started out as public records. Most public records are kept only for a certain period of time in print form: their volume is so great that storing paper copies of all records indefinitely would soon crowd people out of their offices. Historically, they have been converted to microfilm or microfiche, which require special magnifying readers. Storing them electronically, as computer files, means that someone has to type or scan them into a computer, unless they were created as electronic files to begin with (only common starting in the 1990's). Older records of current agencies and organizations, therefore, and records that go back far enough to be thought of as historical documents, are often stored in a formal or informal archive.

An archive is a storehouse - actual and/or electronic - of records, papers, reports, photographs, audio-visual data (audio recordings, film, etc.), and/or other materials that have been kept in order to preserve the history of the body or place they relate to. Some archives contain only the most historically significant materials, or only those that have been intentionally or accidentally preserved; others may contain virtually everything the entity has ever produced or received.

Most countries have national archives that preserve the documents and other material that detail their history. Some of these materials are famous for their crucial roles in that history. The U.S. National Archives, for instance, displays original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The U.K. National Archives has a more-than-900-year-old original copy of the Domesday Book, a combined census and record of landholdings and other property for everyone in England, commissioned by William the Conqueror for tax purposes in 1086.

In the U.S. and numerous other countries, states and many counties and municipalities also keep archives - some going back hundreds of years - often found in libraries or local public museums,. In addition, there are publicly accessible archives kept by non-public institutions such as newspapers, local historical societies, and religious organizations. (Perhaps the largest collection of genealogical records anywhere, for instance, is kept by the Mormon Church.)

As with any other information, the fact that something is a public record doesn't guarantee that it's accurate. There may be gaps in information, or some parts of records may be impossible to read or decipher. It may have been recorded incorrectly, transcribed wrong, or even falsified for some reason, although that's far less likely. Be aware that mistakes can exist, although they're apt to be few.

Why use public records or archival data?

There are a number of reasons to use this material, some obvious, some less so.

They're relatively easy for most people to gain access to.

Many public records and archived materials can be read on line, and most others can be found and copies ordered, at a reasonable cost, from the agencies or institutions that hold them. Most of this information can also be found in libraries, or at the agencies or institutions that collect it.

The information you're most likely to want is from state and local sources. State and local government agencies are used to research requests, and have systems set up to help you find or order what you need. Except in large states, where the distance to the capital may present a barrier, most people can visit the agency that holds the material they're looking for.

The National Archives are another matter. Much of their material is not on line at present, and you may have to visit either the National Archives building in Washington, DC, or one of the branches - San Francisco and Laguna Niguel, CA; Denver, CO; Kansas City, MO; Ft. Worth, TX; Chicago, IL; Atlanta, GA; Philadelphia, PA; or Pittsfield and Waltham, MA - to find what you need. Obviously, that may only be worth it if the information is absolutely crucial for your assessment.

They can give you information about the history or status of the community that it would be difficult to get elsewhere.

Hard numbers about income or housing stock or demographics, oral histories, immigration information, who owns what land - these and countless other bits of information can be gleaned, usually on line, from public documents and archives. Finding most of these same bits of information yourself would take huge amounts of time and effort.

They often enable you to compare your community with others.

This can make it easier to determine which of the issues in your community are most important, or to give you ideas about finding resources to address issues.

They help you use your time more efficiently, and free you from the need to spend time collecting data yourself.

You may get more and better information, particularly when it comes to hard numbers, from spending a few hours with public records than from spending weeks trying to get the same information directly from the community.

This is not to say that interviews, observation, and other similar methods of gathering information aren't extremely valuable. On the contrary, they're absolutely necessary. Interviews, for instance, will tell you the story behind the success or failure of past attempts to deal with a problem, or exactly how people experience the effects of a particular issue. They're less good, however, at tracing the economic history of the community over the past 50 years, or comparing the community's teen pregnancy rate to those of similar communities around the state or around the country. The point here is simply that it makes sense to use the method that's best for gathering the particular type of information you need.

Their information may keep you from making important mistakes.

You may be advocating for saving a piece of open land that's "always been wild," for instance, when a look at the town archives would tell you that it was an industrial site a hundred years ago. Opponents can jump on this kind of error...not to mention that you may find that you're advocating for the wrong thing.

They're part of a larger information package.

Together with the other assessment strategies, information sources, and tools you use, they'll give you the most accurate and most nearly complete picture of the aspects of the community - now and in the past - that you're concerned with.

Who should use public records and archival data, and when?

There are times when certain people might find the use of public records and archival data particularly helpful.

  • Any group or individual involved in community assessment, for all the reasons listed above.
  • Community activists, in order to understand their issue better and support their arguments with accurate facts and figures.
  • Community historians and other researchers, who can get a picture not only of the objective history of the community - what groups settled when, what industries have been important, what important historical events took place there - but also of the human history. Records and oral histories can tell who the people in the community actually were, and what they thought and felt. That in turn may help to explain the origin of current policies or situations, and lead to ways to improve them.
  • Health and human service organizations and institutions. Information is available about the history and current state and extent of conditions and diseases in the community, and often information as well about what's been done to address them. When prevention is the issue, or when there's a crisis or a problem in the community itself, or in other places that might start to show up in the community, it's important to have this information.
    • Sometimes, ideas about how to deal with health or human service issues can be found in records from decades past. Many good ideas have been abandoned because of lack of funding or swings of the political pendulum. These may be documented and could be revived.
  • Public officials and other policy makers, whether engaged in community assessment or in trying to determine what's the best policy on a particular issue. Having good information is crucial in both these situations.

How do you use public records and archival data?

Once you've set out to obtain publicly available information, how do you go about it? In this part of the section, we'll set out some steps for getting what you need.

Even before you start thinking about what kind of information you want, you should spend some time making sure you know why you want it and what you're going to use it for. Are you assessing the community to determine what kind of interventions or programs are needed? To attract funding for an existing service? To identify community assets in order to strengthen them? To influence policy or public opinion? To energize volunteers and community activists?

This short list only begins to explore the possibilities, and each requires looking at information-gathering in a different way. If you're going to spend time with public records or archival data, make your search as efficient as you can by defining the reasons you're doing it. Then follow the guidelines below.

Determine what type(s) of information you need

There are many kinds of information available. Before you approach the vast storehouse of public records and archives, it's important to know what you're looking for, or you'll easily get lost. In a community assessment, some of the many types of publicly available information you might be interested in include:

Historical

This category might include anything from what happened six months ago, or the history of relationships among people still involved in a particular community issue, to decades- or centuries-old industrial patterns. Among the kinds of information you might look for are:

  • Other attempts at dealing with current issues, and their results.
  • Population factors - growth, racial/ethnic composition, geographical shifts, changing neighborhoods, etc.
  • People, groups, and institutions that have been connected with addressing your issue or with community building in the past.
  • Architectural history - the age of housing stock, historic buildings, the condition of older buildings, original uses, buildings that could be restored.
  • Economic history. What were the major industries and employers in the community in the past, and what happened to them?

Demographic

This is the basic information that tells you who people in the community are - by race and ethnicity, age, gender, income, employment status, family size, education level, etc. - and where they live. Knowing these essential facts can help you understand planning issues (where affordable housing is most needed, for example, or why some economic development plans may have profoundly negative effects on certain neighborhoods), identify groups that need services, and direct resources where they're most needed.

Health

Once again, health-related information can help identify the groups that most need services, pinpoint the most important health issues in the community, spot growing trends and threats, mobilize assets, and drive health and prevention planning that aims squarely at the real needs of the community. Some information that can aid this process:

  • The incidence of various health conditions in the community.
  • The populations most affected by various health conditions.
  • The geographic areas most affected by various health conditions.
    • "Health conditions" include such things as chronic diseases and high blood pressure, of course, but they also encompass some things that we may not normally think of as specifically health-related. Pollution, which is usually lumped under environmental concerns, is obviously a health concern as well. Drug use and violence are often seen by community members as health issues, both because they often cause chronic health problems, and because they affect the health of the community in other ways. People subject to the constant threat of violence, for instance, can experience severe psychological symptoms - anxiety, depression, dissociation from human feeling - that significantly affect their lives and the life of the community.
  • Teen pregnancy and teen parenting statistics.
  • The birth and death rates for various populations, including infant mortality.
  • The number and distribution of uninsured people.
  • The availability of health care in the community.

Housing

Knowledge of the availability, affordability, and condition of the community's housing is a vital assessment tool. It can help in planning the amount and location of affordable housing, and in deciding whether such housing needs to be built from scratch, or whether existing vacant and run-down buildings can be restored. It can also target landlords who are failing to keep buildings up to code, and thereby placing their (usually low-income) renters at risk, or who are discriminatory in renting or selling property.

Economic

What businesses and industries exist in the community and surrounding area? Are they sound? Will they stay? How many people do they employ? Are there other businesses currently planning to locate in the community? Does the community have a solid tax base? Does it provide tax incentives to businesses, and do these accomplish their purpose? What's the unemployment rate, and how does it compare to past history and to that of similar communities elsewhere in the state? The answers to these and related questions can inform economic planning, and help the community think about what kind of economic development it wants and needs, and how to attract it.

Open space, development, and land use

Understanding clearly what kind of development is possible under the zoning laws, and what's currently and potentially taking place, is necessary to plan a balance among controlled population growth, industrial development, and maintenance of open space and recreational opportunities. Some of the areas you might examine:

  • Existing local, state, and federal laws and regulations governing development.
  • Current development projects.
  • The location and amount of existing open space.
  • The use of existing open space.
  • Pending permits for development or construction.
  • The nature of development under way - residential or commercial (heavy industry, light industry, small business, service/office), cluster or sprawl, recreational, cultural, etc.

Find the records or archives that contain the information you need

Once you've determined what you're looking for, you have to find out where to get it. As we've discussed, there is a vast store of records and archives, and it isn't always obvious which agency or institution - or even which level of government - has the right information. There are two obvious places to begin your search.

The first is the Internet. Virtually every government agency and department, every archive, and every legislator has a website, and those websites almost always explain what kind of data that particular body or individual can provide.

The other great source of help in searching is your public or university library. As we've often stated in the Community Tool Box, reference librarians are, in general, knowledgeable and eager to help, and many take difficult searches as a challenge. The advantage of using a library is that librarians may be able to find you sources not referred to on the Internet, or may steer you to documents or collections that are not public or archived records, but are still accessible to the public.

The gap between libraries and the Internet is far narrower than it used to be. Many public and university libraries have put their catalogues on line, where they can either be consulted by everyone, or where users can pay or register to use them. Many libraries are putting large parts of their collections on line as well. In addition, libraries and librarians often have access to large databases that may contain or direct you to the information you need. (The author, for instance, gained access to the state library system's collection of public records as well as historical, biographical, and scientific databases simply by requesting and receiving a password and log-in number from his local public library.)

Only some of the records themselves can be found on line or in libraries, but websites and librarians can confirm that such records exist, and help you find them. If it's physically possible, a trip to the appropriate agency, archive, or institution can find you what you're looking for. Someone there will know exactly where the material is, and may well lead you to other useful information as well. Another advantage to a personal visit is that, if you have to purchase materials, you can do it on the spot, without having to wait for delivery.

If a visit is not possible - the travel distance too great, for instance - you can phone, write, or e-mail to find out whether you can obtain what you want by mail, e-mail, or fax, and what it might cost. In many cases, you can find and order materials directly from an entity's website.

Other possible places to find materials are museums, particularly for old photographs and paintings that might show community sites as they were in the past. City or other local museums might also have old non-governmental documents, as might associations or clubs.

Finding the particular documents or other material won't necessarily end your search. One document may lead to another and still another, or to a search for something entirely different, and you may find yourself again trying to determine where you can find what you need. That's the nature of research.

The places you're likely to find your information are many and varied. What follows is an outline of where you might look, but is no means complete. The list of federal government departments and agencies, for instance, merely scratches the surface. But it will give you some idea of what's available, and what you might find where.

Public records

The Census Bureau

Some of the most useful public records in the U.S. are those produced by the Census Bureau. Every ten years, the Bureau, a federal agency, conducts a census of the entire U.S., gaining basic information from and about every household in the country, and more detailed information from approximately one household out of six. The results of the census, including maps of census tracts, block groups, and blocks, combinations of various types of data (education levels for the whole population of a state, for just women, for just Hispanics, for just Hispanic women, etc.), and some analysis are made available to the public.

Census tracts, block groups, and blocks are the areas into which the Census Bureau divides the country for the purpose of collecting information. As of 2000, a census tract contains between 1,500 and 8,000 people. In a densely populated area, a census tract may encompass only a few buildings; in a rural area, it may extend for many miles.

A census block is the smallest area for which the Census Bureau collects information (there may be several census blocks in a single census tract), and a block group is just that - a group of census blocks considered as a unit. In a large city, a census block may cover a city block or less.

Each tract, block group, and block is assigned a number, and census data refers to those numbers. The Census Bureau website includes maps of census tracts and blocks covering the entire United States, so that you can find the census tracts that cover your community, and even the specific parts of your community that you're concerned with.

Most census data is available on the Internet on the Census Bureau Home Page. There is a vast amount to be found, all broken out by census block, block group, and tract, community, county, state, region, and the country as a whole. Some of the most commonly sought information includes:

  • Demographics: The age, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. of the population by census tract, community, county, state, region, and the whole country.
  • Education levels of the various segments of the population.
  • Economics: Income (by individual and household), employment status, type of work, length of commute, and other statistics related to economic conditions of families and communities.
  • Housing: Value and type of housing (one-family, multi-family, mobile home, etc.), size and condition of housing, household size, amenities (indoor plumbing, full kitchen, etc.)

Other federal records

As explained above, most government records are legally open to the public. Federal department and agency regulations, rulings, and reports are among those that can be obtained on the Internet, in libraries, or from the government bodies themselves. Departments and agencies whose records might pertain to community assessment include (but certainly aren't limited to):

Another source of information from federal records is the filings that corporations are required to make by various federal bodies and laws. A few of these:

Other federal records include:

  • The proceedings of the House and Senate (in the Congressional Record, published daily by the Government Printing Office and available online, with an index going back to 1983, and earlier editions available through Federal Depository Libraries, which include many public and university libraries in all states)
  • Voting records of all members of the House and Senate (a good source for these is Project Vote Smart), as well as what they choose to disclose of their financial situations.
  • Federal court records, including those of all Federal Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court (available on the Internet at Public Access to Court Electronic Records for a fee.) The Supreme Court has its own website, where opinions, dissents, and other information from recent sessions (past three years) are available at no charge. The Villanova Law School Library maintains an index of federal court records.
  • The Federal Register. Published by the Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Federal Register is the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of Federal agencies and organizations, as well as executive orders and other presidential documents.

State records

States, in addition to keeping vital statistics (births, deaths, marriages, etc.), also keep a large store of other records, virtually all available to the public. In fact, state records are likely to be far more valuable for a community assessment than federal records (with the exception of census data), because they contain more specific information about the community.

Most state websites include information on state records. You may have to cast around a bit to find it - it's often buried in the link to a particular agency - but it's likely to be there. Global Computing provides links to all 50 state websites.

Another way to find state records, or indexes to them, on the Web is to use a search engine. If you search "public records" or, better yet, the type of public records you're looking for, along with the name of the state, you'll probably find what you're looking for without too much trouble.

Regulations, laws, filing requirements, etc. vary from state to state. All states must follow certain federal laws, but may make their own decisions in the cases of others. Thus, some state regulations and requirements for records may be stricter than federal laws, while others may be more lenient. States may also establish their own regulations in areas that aren't governed by federal laws.

Some state records you might be interested in:

  • All state laws
  • State department and agency regulations, rulings, and reports. State agencies issue these just as federal agencies do

Most states have departments and agencies similar to those of the federal government, although their names vary from state to state, and sometimes change. In Massachusetts, for instance, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Protection are separate, while in Colorado, the Department of Public Health and Environment combines many elements of these two functions. Some other states organize their departments and agencies differently from either of these.

  • Licensure. Licenses for professionals and tradespeople - social workers, psychologists, lawyers, plumbers, contractors, etc. - as well as licenses for businesses of certain types - stores, restaurants, and bars that sell liquor, for instance
  • Articles of incorporation
  • Corporate filings. Corporations doing business in a state must file annual reports and other information; the requirements vary from state to state
  • Information on state demographics, economics, and other census-like data. Some states collect their own data in many of the same areas that the census does. It may be collected more often than census data - annually, for instance - so that it's more up-to-date than the federal figures, most of which are based on the 10-year census
  • Court records. Most state court systems include special-jurisdiction courts (Probate Court, Housing Court, Traffic Court, etc.), District Courts (general trial courts), an Appeals Court, and a Supreme Court
  • Wills that have gone through probate - i.e., that have been administered by the Probate Court - are public documents as part of the state's court records
  • Motor vehicle registration

Like states, most counties and municipalities have websites which often give information about public records. The websites can easily be found by searching the name of the county or municipality and the state on an Internet search engine. You can also find records at your City or Town Hall, at the County Courthouse or County Offices (in all cases, the Clerk's Office is a good place to start), or at the public library.

Some public records that are kept by counties and municipalities:

  • Local licenses and permits. Building permits, zoning variances, etc.
  • Assessors' records, which include property value and tax information.
  • Property transfers, foreclosures, permits, and other information relating to real estate.
  • Deeds.
  • Police activity. Many local newspapers publish the whole of each day's police log (the record of all calls to the police, and of all the actions officers take in the course of a day).
  • Town and county annual reports. These generally contain information on such things as housing starts, business activity, crime, town and county budgets, and other relevant areas.
  • Maps of all kinds, often including GIS maps.
  • A town or county calendar of meetings and events, as well as records and minutes of meetings of local boards and governing bodies.

Archives and archival data

Federal Archives

The U. S. National Archives include material that dates from before the founding of the country. Some documents and other materials were, in fact, carefully set aside in their own time, because someone knew they were important. Others, however, just happened to be stored and forgotten, only to be found years later. Still others may have been purchased by the Archives or donated to them by collectors or the families of their original owners, who had carefully preserved them. The Archives estimates that about 1-3% of federal records and other materials are preserved because of their historic interest. The rest are thrown away or otherwise lost.

Preserving records means more than just storing them. Paper breaks down over time, and must be treated with chemicals and/or kept in a carefully controlled environment so that it won't crumble into dust in a hundred years or so. Other materials - film, magnetic tape, glass photo negatives - also must be properly treated and stored, and handled with great care. Most archives of any size employ conservators - experts in restoring and preserving these materials - to keep their collections in good condition.

There is another element to preservation, which has only surfaced as computer use has become nearly universal in developed countries. Records may reside in an obsolete format, and will no longer be readable unless they're constantly transferred to the latest medium. How many of us have the capacity to listen to Edison-era wax cylinder recordings, for instance? More to the point, how many of us have drives that can read 51/4 -inch floppies? 3.5-inch floppies will be in the same category before long, and CDs and DVDs will undoubtedly soon follow on the road to oblivion.

Not all archived materials are well known historical documents. Among those stored in the U.S. National Archives, for instance, are records, and sometimes original copies, of:

  • Laws and regulations from the earliest days of the country to the present
  • Proceedings of the Congress for much of the country's history
  • Treasury records
  • Census data from the first U.S. Census to the present
  • Immigration and naturalization records
  • Indian affairs documents
  • Customs and shipping
  • History and historical documents (famous and not-so-famous)
  • Military and veterans' information
  • 150 years of photographs
  • Survey and other maps
  • Audio recordings of Presidents' inaugural speeches
  • Historically significant personal documents

In addition to the collections of the National Archives, some government agencies have archives of their own, also open to the public. An enormous source of archival material in the U.S. is the Library of Congress, which includes, among other treasures, recorded oral histories of thousands of people from the 1930's and '40's on audiotape and vinyl, as well as in transcripts.

Most national governments have archives, although whether or not they are open to public examination depends on the government. Some that are public, and that have websites, include:

State archives

Not only U.S. states, but the states and provinces of other countries as well, usually have their own archives. These are similar to the federal archives (and may even contain some of the same or similar material), but largely dedicated to the history of the state or province, rather than of the country as a whole. Holdings differ widely from state to state, partially because of the differences in their establishment dates, at least in the U.S. Some records - often dating back to the state's beginnings - a state archive might contain include:

  • Laws and regulations dating back to the founding of the state
  • Legislative proceedings
  • Election information
  • Vital statistics (births, deaths, marriages, etc.)
  • Property transactions
  • Deeds
  • Wills and other probate-related material
  • Photographs, particularly of the early days of the state, or old photos of well-known state citizens and places
  • Maps
  • Archeological surveys
  • Audio tape, film, and videotape of press conferences, speeches, and other historically or politically significant events
  • Paintings or other artwork by state-based artists or referring to the state (Massachusetts, for example, has a series of paintings of "The Birds of Massachusetts.")

As with public records, a quick search under "archives" and the name of the state should get you a website. Many state archives will also be part of or linked to their states' websites.

County and municipal archives

These are likely to contain material similar to state and municipal archives, but relating instead to county or town history. In most cases, official archives exist only for large towns and cities (and not for all of those), which have the resources to support them.

The situation varies from town to town, and you should check to find out whether there's a local archive or not. Smaller towns may store records, but they often aren't catalogued, so that specific material is difficult, if not impossible, to find. In many cases, small-town records aren't stored at all because there's no place to put them, or are stored in cardboard boxes in someone's attic or garage and forgotten, or lost to mildew and vermin. Without some sort of fundamental conservation, paper records seldom survive past 50 years or so.

In the small New England town where the author lives, town records - some nearly 200 years old - have been stored in two enormous safes in the Selectmen's office and in the notoriously damp basement of the 19th-Century town hall. Recently, the town obtained a grant to catalogue them - a task largely carried out by volunteers - and to store them in better boxes. What's been done, however, is far from real conservation, and the town still has no official place to store its records.

Other useful archives

Not all archives - even those containing public documents - are official and government-sponsored. Some private organizations and institutions keep their own, usually relating to the history of the entity; and some are unofficial, though generally related to the work of the entities that maintain them. Some of the most common:

  • Newspaper archives. Most newspapers keep files - paper, microfilm, or electronic - of every paper they've published (or at least all they can retrieve) since their founding. These are often available through public or academic libraries as well, and some are even available on line for free.
  • Magazines keep similar archives.
  • Audio, video, and movie collections, some kept by studios and broadcast networks, some in private hands, and some maintained by some of the institutions listed below
    • Video collections are particularly fragile, especially early films and the kinescopes of early TV shows. The celluloid on which they're recorded deteriorates over time, a process hastened by their exposure to various temperature extremes and particular substances. In many cases, playing them contributes to their destruction. Unless transferred to a longer-lasting medium - generally by digitizing, and storing them as DVD's or computer files - classic examples of early movies, TV shows, and other performances can be lost forever.
  • Private photo archives. The best known of these is probably the Bettmann Archive, keeper of millions of images, which sells rights to print individual images.
  • Museum collections. Museums often buy whole sets of records, photographs, maps, and other material from collectors or others, and carefully catalogue them. Many make these materials available for research.
  • Public libraries. Libraries are publicly funded, but are not archives in and of themselves. They almost always have large collections of archival material, however, often locally oriented.
  • University libraries.
  • Archives of organizations and institutions. Many organizations keep archives of their own history and proceedings in order to maintain an institutional memory. Among those who might have such records are health and human service organizations (including hospitals), colleges and universities, and private clubs or associations.
    • These archives may contain both historical material and objects - old surgical instruments, refectory benches from 18th century dining halls - and records and minutes of the business of the entity - membership lists, board meetings, grant applications, study results, etc.
  • Items not specifically meant for historic or research purposes. A group looking for the original use of a piece of land it wants to preserve as open space, for example, might find that information in a painting on someone's living room wall or a photo in a great-grandmother's scrap book.

In addition to the governmental archives listed above, here are some archived survey data resources that may be helpful (contributed by Danielle MacCartney, Ph.D., Webster University):

 Use public records and archives to gain information that will inform your assessment

Once you find the materials you're looking for, you have to know how to use them. What census data will actually be useful? What do particular statistics actually mean in relation to your community assessment? Which communities can and should you compare yours to? You have to think carefully about these and other research questions.

Here are some suggestions for approaching public records and archival data:

  • Don't swamp yourself with information. In general, it's better to know more rather than less, but there's so much data available that you could find yourself lost in it. Try to narrow your search to material that's truly relevant to your goals.
  • Use community-level indicators to tell you more about the reality of the community's circumstances. Briefly, community-level indicators are measures that reflect the actions or situations of the whole population or the whole community, rather than of individuals. The number of single-car nighttime crashes may tell you something about the community's rate of alcohol abuse, for instance, as may the number of teens arrested for drunk driving.
  • Examining the social determinants of issues - the social factors that influence and/or cause those issues - is important in helping you devise strategies that will actually work to solve problems and improve the quality of community life.
  • Use comparisons with similar communities to understand whether the issues in your community are exceptional. It may be easier to obtain funding to address an issue if you can show that it's more serious in your community than in others. By the same token, if it's serious in several communities, some or all of them may want to partner to address it.

A "similar" community is not simply one that's the same size as yours, but rather one that's similar in a number of ways: size, income level and distribution, class, racial/ethnic composition, age, etc.

Think about the different ways you can find out what you want to know. Historic land use patterns might be available in documents, but they might be more easily - or only - found in old photographs, for example. The census not only catalogs the frequency of different types of jobs held by members of a particular community, but how far they must commute to get to those jobs, numbers that could give you important information about the community's economic situation. Careful and thoughtful information-gathering and analysis will go a long way toward helping you conduct a community assessment that will point to long-term community improvement for everyone.

Suppression of Statistics

An issue that you should be aware of and prepared to encounter during your research is suppression of statistics.  When research deals with small populations or data pools, in order to protect the privacy of individuals, it is sometimes necessary to suppress data. In other words, when the number of cases in a category - i.e., females in Wyandotte County who died from lung cancer in 2004 - is small enough that disclosing the data might allow a specific individual to be identified, steps are taken to protect the privacy of individuals.

The most common method of preventing the identification of specific individuals is through cell suppression. This means not providing counts in individual cells where doing so would potentially allow identification of a specific person. Cell suppression can also be done by combining cells from different small groups to create larger groupings that reduce the risk of identifying individuals.

The table below, from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Bureau of Epidemiology and Public Health Informatics, shows a break-down by race of deaths due to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in Wyandotte County, KS in 2010. Because the numbers for African-American and Other are small enough that it might be possible to identify individuals from those statistics, the data is suppressed, as indicated by the #.

Death Statistics for Chronic liver disease & cirrhosis for Wyandotte County, 2010
White Black/African-American Other All races
14 # # 20
# Indicates numbers below 6

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) has a useful tip sheet that explores this and other challenges of data collection and analysis in jurisdictions with small populations and provides useful information for overcoming these challenges.

In addition to the question of confidentiality, low numbers in a given category can also be an issue when considering the stability of data. In other words, when there are low numbers or incidences in the data you are researching, it is more difficult to accurately calculate rates and it can give an inaccurate picture of the categories you are researching.  For instance, if the number of lung cancer deaths in 2004 was 20, and in 2005 it was 30, statistically that is a 50% rise over one year, which is quite a substantial fluctuation; however, it may be that it is simply a normal variation in reporting. Because the numbers reported are so small, even minor changes can seem substantial, and this can result in unreliable or unstable data. The table below, from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Bureau of Epidemiology and Public Health Informatics, shows a break-down by race of deaths due to breast cancer in 2010 in Wyandotte County, KS. Because the numbers available for White, African-American, and Other are too small to allow for an accurate, reliable calculation of the rates for that year, the information is suppressed, indicated by the @.@ symbols.

Death statistics for malignant neoplasms of breast, Wyandotte County, 2010
  White Black/African-America Other All Races
Number 15 6 # 23
Rate @.@ @.@ @.@ 15.5
@.@ indicates numerator too small for rate calculation
# indicates numbers below 6

However, there are a couple of strategies that can be used to help avoid or address these problems of instability.

One way to increase the reliability of data where you are dealing with small data sets is to combine multi-year data (for instance, results of cancer deaths in a community for three years instead of one).  A drawback to this option is that looking at multi-year data limits the ability to monitor program interventions and identify new trends.  Rolling year averages (e.g., looking at data for 1997-2000 one year, and 1998-2001 the following year) may overcome this drawback and should is an option that should be considered.

Another way to decrease the possibility of statistical instability is to expand the geographic area you are investigating by looking at regional health assessments conducted by collaborating neighboring jurisdictions, or in the example above, expanding from county to state.  A drawback to this option is that you may then be examining results for a geographical area that does not necessarily apply to your assessment.   Analyzing data at the regional level may also mask interesting local variations in the data.

In Summary

Public records and archival data represent a huge storehouse of information that can be helpful, or even crucial, in a community assessment. Federal, state, and local government departments and agencies keep both records and, often, archives, most of which are available to the public by law. In addition, the archives of newspapers and broadcast media, museums, universities, private archives (such as the Bettmann photo archive), and other institutions and organizations are also often available to the public for research, either free or for a fee.

Most of these entities, many indexes to materials, and some of the records and archival materials themselves, are available on the Internet or in public or other libraries. The U.S. Census publishes almost all of its data on line, and most libraries have copies as well. All of the public records and archived information are available at the source - federal, state, or local government agency or department offices, federal and state archives, town halls, etc. Much of what isn't accessible on the Web or in libraries can be ordered, generally at a reasonable cost.

Using these materials well involves narrowing your search to what you actually need, so you don't drown in information; looking at community-level indicators and social determinants of issues to flesh out your assessment; comparing your community to other similar ones, both to further your own understanding of the issues and to marshal arguments for eventual funding and support; and carefully and critically analyzing the information you get, so that your eventual strategy will truly address the community's needs.

Contributor 
Phil Rabinowitz

Print resources

Berg, Bruce L. (2007), Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences (6th edn). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Contains a chapter on using public and private archives.

Hock, Randolph (2004), The Extreme Searcher's Internet Handbook: A Guide for the Serious Searcher. Medford, NJ: CyberAge Books.

Lane, Carole A. (2002), Naked in Cyberspace: How to Find Personal Information Online (2nd edn). Medford, NJ: CyberAge Books. Contains helpful general search information.

Online Resources

CHNA.org is a free, web-based utility to assist hospitals, non-profit community-based organizations, state and local health departments, financial institutions, and engaged citizens in understanding the needs and assets of their communities. CHNA.org provides single-point access to thousands of public data sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Key (BRFSS), with the aim of reducing duplication of efforts in information-gathering. Additional capabilities include: a) an intuitive platform to guide you through the process of conducting community health needs assessments, b) the ability to create a community health needs assessment report, c) the ability to select area geography in different ways, and d) the ability to identify and profile geographic areas with significant health disparities.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the principal agency for protecting the health of U.S. citizens, is comprised of 12 agencies that provide information on their specific domains, such as the Administration on Aging. Others cross health boundaries, such as the Centers for Disease Control, which maintains national health statistics. The "WONDER" system is an access point to a wide variety of CDC reports, guidelines, and public health data to assist in research, decision-making, priority setting, and resource allocation.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The website of the U.S. Census Bureau. Census data, maps, and reports.

Canadian National Archives.

The U.S. Department of Labor.

The U.S. Department of Education.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Text of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Federal Election Commission (oversees the Campaign Finance Reform Act).

The Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri, providing more information on the Freedom of Information Act, as well as links to the state laws on freedom of information.

Links to the 50 official U.S. state websites.

The Congressional Record, which records the proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, with an index going back to 1983.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Text of the U.S. Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), with links to state laws that follow the guidelines of the UCC.

Villanova Law School Library index of federal court records on the Web.

Australian National Archives

The National Archives of Ireland

UK National Archives

The National Archives of India

The U.S. National Institute of Health.

Open Secrets. Filings under the Campaign Finance Reform Act - records of corporate political contributions, and who got them.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor.

PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). Federal court records, available directly from the federal court system for a reasonable fee.

The website of the industry magazine Search Engine Watch. Tips on searching the web, explanations of how search engines work, and other information.

Search Systems, a collection of links to free (and some not-free) public records and other material, including federal court records (some free) and state records in a variety of areas.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees stock and bond trading and corporate activities.

The website of the U.S. Supreme Court: opinions, dissents, and other information from recent sessions (past three years) are available at no charge.

Project Vote Smart. Voting records of all members of the U.S. Congress.

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health provides statistics and educational information for the public as well as information for researchers.