The History of Public Records in America -

History of Public Records in America

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The History of Public Records in the United States

Public records consist of parts of information or documents which are not confidential. The information is available to anyone, and a copy of the document can be ordered from the county in which the event occurred.

The United States has the most access to records than anywhere else in the world. However, all 50 states have laws covering freedom of information regarding documents, and their provisions vary considerably.

Extensive records databases can be added to daily, give very current information, and are organized in an easy way to search and locate information, so they are useful even to amateurs.


The earliest societies kept public records including on clay tablets in ancient Babylon, using elaborate knots in cords in the Inca empire, as early as in the 1086 “Domesday Book” which was a “Great Survey” of a good part of England and parts of Wales ordered by King William the Conqueror, and other examples. Royal marriage agreements, which were actually international treaties, were recorded. The United Kingdom Public Record Office Act of 1838, which made record-keeping formal, set up the Public Record Office.

In the United States

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows the partial or full disclosure of unreleased documents and information that is controlled by the government. Defined are those agency records that are subject to disclosure, procedures for disclosure, and nine exemptions. It was signed into law on July 4, 1966, by President Lyndon B. Johnson and went into effect in 1967. Requests for records access can be refused by a federal agency if the requested information is subject to being exempted, or portions of the information may be redacted/deleted.

This Federal Government’s Freedom of Information Act should not be confused with the different ones of the individual states, which may be similar but not identical. Some states make it easy to request and receive documents while other states have many exemptions and restricted document categories. .

Helpful sites

Public record data is used for multiple purposes, and just a few examples of the available sites are these:
Helpful for beginning researchers because it gives instructions on how to make inquiries and is organized by state and then county.

American FactFinder
U.S. Census Bureau site with community profiles, maps, and facts on population and housing.

Find A Grave
Ancestors’ or famous people’s graves at which cemeteries, memorials, monuments, and burial records.

Search Quarry
Search anyone’s public record. Available public records include criminal records, lien records, driving records, civil records, vehicle records, & more.

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