Vast Troves of Information About Information  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   October 1996

Vast Troves of Information About Information   

The Sourcebook of State Public Records
The MVR Book, Motor Services Guide
The Sourcebook of Online Public Record Experts

All published by the Public Record Research Library, BRB Publications

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


The Sourcebook of
State Public Records
(320 pages, $33)

The MVR Book, Motor Services Guide
(272 pages, $18)

The Sourcebook of Online Public Record Experts
(368 pages, $29)

All published by the Public Record
Research Library, BRB Publications, Tempe, Arizona

We have rocketed into the Information Age, as you may have heard, and suddenly journalists have a surprising problem: far more information than they can cope with.

Predictably, the entrepreneurs have noted this matter and are speedily filling the shelves with a modern genre that might be called "information about information." They're producing guides, indexes and bibliographies to help catalog the vast, ever-multiplying information sources so researchers can efficiently find and use them.

The Public Record Research Library, for one, publishes about a dozen such guides. Their primary audiences seem to be librarians, businesspeople and
reference-checkers, but many reporters and news researchers may find them useful.

Three seem especially pertinent to journalists:

The Sourcebook of State Public Records is a 50-state compendium of where to find 17 major categories of information, including criminal records, corporation records, birth and death certificates, and driver and vehicle data. Separately, the sourcebook lists addresses and phone numbers for agencies handling licensing and registration for everything from architects and doctors to notary publics, court reporters, locksmiths, real estate brokers and sports referees.

Especially helpful for reporters are sections summarizing restrictions on what information an agency will release. Unfortunately, these sections are brief and sometimes confusing, and they aren't included for every information category. Still, what's there will be valuable, particularly for reporters trying to track down material in states they know little about.

The MVR Book is a state-by-state guide to driver and vehicle records. It has all the material you would expect on licensing and registration, plus detailed information on access restrictions, fees and procedures.

But it also includes a wealth of particulars that could sometimes prove golden for reporters. For example, the book describes the physical format of each state's driver's license and specifies, among other things, whether the license number is based on a Social Security number or some other code. If you know a New Hampshire license number, for instance, you can figure out the driver's date of birth.

Similarly, the book also describes each state's license plate and explains such helpful details as whether the plate includes county codes. In South Dakota, for example, the first two numbers designate the county issuing the plate.

This volume also includes the text of the 1994 Driver's Privacy Protection Act, a federal law being phased in over three years that will limit information disclosure.

States are now adapting to the new requirements, and The MVR Book wisely advises that "because state legislatures are now forced to look at their access and restriction laws, many states will write and pass legislation that is more restrictive than the federal version." It urges researchers to "track bills from your state and stay in touch with your state legislative representatives."

The Sourcebook of Online Public Record Experts identifies "companies that collect public records at the source and distribute them in some form." Here the focus is generally on commercial firms, including private investigators, that search or compile records for a fee.

Much of the information here is proprietary and sensitive (credit records, criminal histories, tenant backgrounds and the like), intended for clients like employers, lawyers or insurance firms. It seems less practical for the typical journalist seeking ordinary information than for the occasional project reporter willing to pay for highly specialized research assistance.

All three of these guides are essentially elaborate lists, presented without a great deal of analysis and discussion. But the very act of assembling this much material from all states provides an interesting overview of information trends and philosophies.

And reading it raises some disturbing policy questions.

In the back of The Sourcebook of State Public Records, for instance, is a chart contrasting how every state handles the release of criminal records, birth and death information, driver histories and several other categories of data.

Take one example, birth records. According to The Sourcebook, those records are completely open in nine states; open with some restrictions (such as requiring a justifying reason for access) in 14 states plus the District of Columbia; open with severe restrictions (such as limiting disclosure to the individual in question or a family member) in 25 states; and not available in two states.

In this case and others, the trend seems toward tightening access by requiring an allowable reason to see a record or even permission from the subject. The once transcending idea that the public actually owns all this information and should be able to demand access to it seems increasingly brittle.

I am left wondering whether journalists and others interested in open government have been snoozing while the bureaucrats slipped in more and more secrecy provisions.

On the positive side, reading books like these reaffirms that vast amounts of information remain public, probably more than most journalists ever know about.

As the Information Age truly accelerates, demand will presumably build. Pressures will rise for maximum access. But they will undoubtedly encounter resistance. Today's culture values privacy and condones constraints on the snoopy media.

So while these books offer some useful resources for journalists, they also carry a warning. Open government can never be taken for granted, and a new series of sunshine battles may be in order.

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