A team of genealogists, historians and researchers obtained more than 5 million 20th century vital records from the Maryland State Archives. Now, they’ve made them available for anyone to view online at no cost.

Reclaim the Records, a nonprofit organization focused on using the law to acquire vital records, began the work to file a Maryland Public Information Act request in October 2022. Their goal was to obtain and digitize over 100 years of Maryland birth, marriage, death and naturalization documents, a project they dubbed The Maryland Motherlode. The records can now be viewed on the Internet Archive.

Previously, Marylanders — or any interested parties — could only view these records at the Maryland State Archives building on an in-house computer in Annapolis.

“We’re so happy to work with government agencies, archives and libraries to help bring these historical documents back to the public,” said Brooke Schreier Ganz, founder and president of Reclaim the Records. “We never charge for any of the records we receive and we’re happy to put them online for free.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Alec Ferretti, a genealogist and board member at Reclaim the Records, said he had expected a more combative exchange with the State Archives over the records. His previous attempts to retrieve similar records a few years prior had been unsuccessful.

“I, in a personal capacity, had made some very basic attempts to get these kinds of records a couple of years ago, and I really never got anywhere with them. They [the Maryland State Archives] were assigning some exemptions that probably didn’t really exist and I kind of gave up on the battle,” Ferretti said.

About a year ago, Michael McCormick, another genealogist, began working as an intern with Reclaim the Records as part of his fieldwork for a Ph.D. in history. He had a particular interest in Maryland research but wasn’t as familiar with Freedom of Information Act requests as Ferretti.

The two began working together. Over the course of about a year, they went over the basics of how FOIAs work and analyzed Ferretti’s past experiences with the Maryland State Archives. This prompted McCormick to try to get the Maryland records again.

“Long story short, he made a request to the archives, and they were surprisingly willing to give us the records at a relatively low cost,” Ferretti said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The agency agreed to do a bulk data export for McCormick.

“It was actually one of our more elegant [records request] processes. You know, there were no lawyers involved and no litigation. And we did it in a couple of different batches: I think we asked for the deaths first, then marriages and the births. It was truly fantastic,” Ferretti said.

Ferretti explained that the organization sometimes has to sue federal and state agencies to obtain records, like their ongoing legal battle to obtain records from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The past summer and fall, Ferretti said Reclaim the Records began sifting through the “clunky” terabytes of data in order to post them in the Maryland State Archives collection on the Internet Archive. He expects commercial genealogy companies, like Ancestry.com, will also add the now-public records to their sites.

“We love seeing these important historical files become available to everybody right from their own home,” said Ganz.

Penelope Blackwell is a Breaking News/Accountability reporter with The Banner. Previously, she covered local government in Durham, NC, for The News & Observer. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Morgan State University and her master’s in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. 

More From The Banner