News from TSHA Archives Committee

A Message from TSHA Archives Committee Chair David Gracy:

Texas Legislature Opens Historical State Records

When shielding sensitive information, Texas, like other states, tends to adopt permanent solutions for temporary problems. It either “excepts” the records from required disclosure under the Public Information Act or declares them to be confidential in the statutes creating or defining them. Once closed, “excepted” and confidential records tend to be closed forever—or until a district judge orders otherwise. This creates a burden on historians, genealogists, and others who require access to files from the past to document the lives of our forebears. In June 2010 a Rice graduate student was denied access at the state archives to Attorney General Correspondence from the 1890s—more than 110 years old--concerning the transfer of female juveniles to Huntsville State Prison as well as very valuable photographs of the Girls' Training School. Unlike many other states Texas has taken a step to correct the situation.

As of September 1, historians, genealogists, and other researchers gained access to many previously closed historical records. SB 1907, passed by the 82nd Regular Session of the State Legislature, amended the Public Information Act to provide that records closed by the Act, except for Social Security Numbers of living persons, will become open (if extant) when 75 years old. It also reduces from 100 to 75 years the time that birth records and medical records are closed. Records opened under SB 1907 can be found in such disparate record groups as Executive Clemency files, Texas National Guard Service files, Confederate Women’s Home Resident Files, and school records.

Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio authored the bill for the TSHA Archives Committee, chaired by David B. Gracy II, and guided it through the Senate. Representative Charlie Geren of Ft. Worth won approval in the House of Representatives. Several organizations and individuals supported the measure through endorsements and testimony, including the Society of Southwest Archivists; the Association of Records Managers and Administrators, Houston; the Archivists of the Houston Area, the East Texas Historical Association, the West Texas Historical Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The measure drew no opposition.

Less than two weeks after the new provisions went into effect, the Archives Committee received a report that a historian in South Texas was able to get access to five previously closed birth certificates.

Reducing the period that records are closed under the blanket Public Information Act is an important first step in opening historical records closed for excessive periods. Approximately 175 other records series--including Juvenile Records, Grand Jury Proceedings, and Adoption Records--continue to be closed under statutes specific to those records.

The Archives Committee is working to arrange for legislation to be considered in the 83rd Legislature in 2011 to open important records for historians of Texas, whether they be genealogists, academics, or persons with other research pursuits. TSHA members interested in helping the Archives Committee secure additional resources for Texas historians are invited to contact David Gracy.