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HOW HE SEES IT Ohio's public records deserve protection


Published: Sat, March 25, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.


By WILLIAM K. LAIDLAW Jr.
SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR
The more our society moves into the Information Age, the more we seem to take for granted effective management of public records. Until some type of crisis presents itself, few people have reason to think about where records are stored or why they should care. I want to share what every dedicated archivist and records manager in Ohio knows: public records management is an emerging policy challenge that the state will need to address.
We all know of situations where citizens were denied records simply because the records could not be located either due to the lack of proper care or the sheer volume. Nevertheless, citizens need and depend upon access to a variety of public records. As Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts have shown, missing, damaged or destroyed records can have serious consequences regarding identity, property ownership and a host of other issues.
This nation and this state were founded on the principle that access to public records is the right of every citizen. It is one way we hold government at all levels accountable and vice versa. Additionally, public records have a strong historical value and they are often deeply personal, as anyone working in the field of genealogy will affirm.
Most think of health, public safety and education as the core functions of government, but accurate and retrievable records are essential to providing these very services. Even when the value of records to government has expired, many continue to have significant historical value. Yet, researchers who visit archives facilities around the state, including the Ohio Historical Society, may never see those records unless governments are able to care for them properly during their active & quot;life cycle. & quot;
Ohio lags other states
In Ohio, the long-term erosion of providing adequate care and access to important public records is not something we can blame on any natural disaster. In a series of state-to-state comparisons, Ohio ranks near the bottom in staff per capita dedicated to local government records and overall funding for records management activities. Ohio has more than 5,000 separate state and local government entities. A survey conducted in 2003 by the state's Local Government Records Program showed that 71 percent of those responding expressed the need for additional assistance to more firmly establish sound records programs.
Legislation was introduced last year to improve access to public records and strengthen the state's & quot;sunshine & quot; provisions. If enacted, House Bill 9 would improve accountability and clarify the responsibilities of state and local entities regarding the often confusing policies governing public access. This is a step in the right direction, but the bill does not address the need to invest in records managers and give them the resources they require. Hopefully, legislators will realize that more work lies ahead.
All who understand and support the importance of public records and their accessibility have a stake in working to increase support dedicated to their care, preservation and accessibility. By investing now, a fundamental right of Ohioans will be ensured for past, present and future generations.
X William K. Laidlaw Jr. is the state records coordinator of the Ohio Historic Records Advisory Board and executive director of the Ohio Historical Society.


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