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[UT] Organizing old birth records a puzzle

Organizing Old Birth Records a Bit of a Puzzle
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Genealogists have a new resource for tracing family history: access through the Utah History Research Center to birth records from 1905, the year the state officially began collecting such data.

The records, contained in tan notebook-style registers, are the first batch of birth documents to become public as a result of legislation passed eight years ago. For relatives and genealogists, that means a more accessible and affordable way to collect vital statistics crucial to reconstructing family histories.

In careful, concise script, county clerks recorded newborns' genders and names, if known; parents' names, their places of origin and occupations and number of other children; and the name of the midwife or doctor who participated in the birth. There were 5,578 births recorded in 1905, almost exactly divided between boys and girls, according to the Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics published in 1906. For family historians, the data provide invaluable links to the past.

"The big starting point for people is 20th century records. That is as far back as memory goes and then you have to go to documents to find more about your ancestors," said Dave Ouimette, collection manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

On Jan. 4, State Archives staff began pulling 1905 registers from about 300 storage boxes kept at the state record center in West Valley City in preparation for making the microfilmed copies that will be available to the public.

It is a daunting task. The boxes aren't organized by year or county. The first registers they pulled cover more than one year, which will require archivists to temporarily shield some data. The biggest challenge is creating an index of names to aid researchers, something that could take months.

"I thought they were in much better arrangement than they are," said Glen Fairclough, processing archivist and spokesman for the State Archives. "In a lot of respects, it's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle."

Still, Patricia Smith Mansfield, archive director, expects much of that work, indexing aside, will be done by the end of the month.

In the meantime, the center, operated jointly by the state archives and the Utah State Historical Society, will do its best to help researchers who know the county and approximate birth month of the individual they are searching for, Mansfield said.

The registers are considered a first draft of the official birth records kept by the state Office of Vital Records and Statistics. The records held by the center don't, for example, include later amendments, such as addition of a baby's name or correction of a misspelling. The center's records are useful for research purposes, but are not legal documents.

Still to be worked out is how the center will handle records that may have subsequently been sealed by a court order because of such events as adoption or a paternity suit.

And the registers are unlikely to be complete, since Utahns were still getting the hang of documenting births and deaths in 1905.

Until now, individuals could, for a fee, order copies of certified birth records from Vital Records or one of several document businesses if they showed a "direct, tangible and legitimate interest" related to personal or property rights, official government purposes, medical or statistic research and court orders.

In 1998, then-Rep. David Zolman of Taylorsville carried legislation that broadened access to vital records to immediate family members, guardians and legal representatives, including genealogists. His bill also required the documents to be made public after a specified number of years. Death records became public after 50 years and birth records after 100 years.

"Very few people live to be that age, so that seemed to be a safe determination," said Zolman, who owns a family history research business called First Genealogical Research Co.

Zolman said the bill was requested by Vital Records, which fields numerous requests for documents from family members and genealogy researchers. Many other states have taken similar steps to provide public access to such information.

At the end of the 19th century, some Utah cities already had begun to collect vital statistics, though not required to do so. Salt Lake City and Ogden began gathering birth and death data in 1890; Park City joined the trend in 1892.

By 1898, county clerks had been charged with registering births, but it was largely a hit-and-miss affair.

A 1903 newspaper story, reprinted by Vital Statistics in its 100th anniversary publication, noted that only half a dozen births and deaths had been registered in Weber County over the previous four years.

"I've seen some registers where only one or two deaths were recorded in a county in an entire calendar year," Fairclough said.

The center already provides microfilm access to pre-1905 birth registers from 26 of the 27 counties then in existence.

In March 1905, as the federal government pushed states to collect vital statistics, the Utah Legislature charged the state health department with creating a uniform vital registration system, including creation of official birth and death certificates.

Until 1998, access to those documents was limited to those who could prove a legitimate reason for requesting the information -- and were willing to pay for it.

Vital Records charges $15 to do a birth or death certificate search and, if found, make a single certified copy of the document. Companies such as VitalChek and USCerts charge similar fees.

The Utah History Research Center, at the Rio Grande Depot, charges just 25 cents to copy a document or 50 cents if staff does the job for you.

Fairclough said there was great interest when the center received the first death records eight years ago for 1905 through 1948.

A new set of death records is added each year, as privacy protections expire -- something that also will happen with birth records. An index to the death records is available online, something Fairclough said will be made available for birth records eventually as well.

For historians, the registers are a trove of information. Ouimette provides a personal example: He was unable to track his family back more than three generations until he found the birth certificate of his great-grandfather's sister, which bore the names of their parents.

"A lot of people are using the records to do the same thing I'm doing -- family history research -- and it's tremendously valuable (for finding) ancestors," he said.

Utah's early birth registers also provide glimpses into turn-of-the century lifestyles.

A 1905 register from Sanpete County, for instance, shows fathers were employed as butchers, horse traders, draymen, laborers and farmers. In Salt Lake County, the range of jobs expands to include electricians, miners and smelter workers and electrical engineers. For women, one occupation was most common, regardless of where they lived: "housewife."

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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