Thanks for your patience...and for providing the additional comments
and clarifications...they were a great help in focusing my thoughts
In my experience, the US is the most open society in the world in
terms of collecting and making available vast amounts of information
of all sorts...including information on individuals available through
a dizzying variety of "public records". Having the information
available is one thing. Accessing it, though, is quite another.
Hence, the frustrations you asked about.
I'll start off by addressing the categories of frustrations that I
MULTIPLICITY OF SOURCES:
Publicly available information on individuals and businesses is
largely collected by government agencies (the one major exception is
telephone directory listings which are privately collected, but access
to landline listings is mandated by government regulations).
The number of government agencies that collect and make available
public information is phenomenal. Data is collected by:
--Federal agencies (IRS, EPA, FBI, civil courts, criminal courts,
appellate courts, bankruptcy courts, housing agencies, banking
regulators, securities regulators, etc, etc)
--State agencies (50+ state motor vehicle departments, state courts,
prison records, medical boards, licensing agencies, permitting
authorities, etc, etc)
--County and city agencies (similar to the above, along with multiple
land use records, UCC filings for certain commercial transactions,
And there are a few others as well.
As your favorite searchsystems.net boasts, they offer "Now over 37,294
Searchable Public Record Databases".
That's a lot of databases! It makes looking for information on a
particular person or business or other entity a real
Even a fairly basic question, such as knowing someone is in jail, and
wanting to find out where they are imprisoned, becomes a cumbersome
and time-consuming search of public records. The federal Bureau of
Prisons site will tell you if the prisoner is in the federal system:
Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator
but then continuing on to the state level involves exploring 50
different state systems to find out if they have an online inmate
and even if you zero-in on a particular state, there are still
separately-maintained local systems to complicate matters. For
instance, in addition to New York State inmate lookups there are also
these sites to be aware of:
NEW YORK Inmate Locator
Fulton City Police Department Arrest Log
Onedia County Sheriff's Office Inmate List
Onondaga County Inmate Lookup
And there are probably others. I'm sure you get the picture by
now...it's a massive job to keep track of public record availability,
and locate the right sight for one's needs.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY/ARCANE/WEAK SEARCHING:
All the frustrations in this section header come under the more
familiar term, "Lack of User Friendliness". A great many public
record website interfaces are terribly difficult to use, even once you
find them. The difficulties stem from either poor site design, a
stubborn refusal to present an interface in plain English (i.e., use
of arcane jargon, specialty abbreviations, etc), limited search
options or -- frequently -- a combination of all of the above.
For instance, here's the public records page for the Boone County, IL
tax assessor's office:
and their helpful instructions for searching:
"Enter a Parcel without dashes"
Unlike many other tax assessment sites, there is no searching by name,
no searching by address, no way to generate any information other than
to know what a parcel number is for a particular property...they don't
even provide a link to a parcel lookup function!.
Public record sites with complex databases can be even worse. Here's
a powerful entry point for searching multiple databases maintained by
the US Environmental Protection Agency:
Selecting "Queries" pulls up a menu with entries like: Multisystem,
AFS, BR, CERCLIS, EMCI...and similar alphabet soup options.
What are these things? Who knows? The site offers little guidance in this regard.
There are thousands of examples of sites that ostensibly make public
information freely available, but that are so unfriendly and unusable,
that the information is actually very difficult to access. The
examples above should give you a good feel for the problems and
At the federal, state, county, city, borough, parish, tribal and
regional levels -- and probably at some other jurisdictional levels
I've overlooked -- there are similar collections of publicly available
records: court filings; property assessments; voter registers; liens;
listings of businesses, securities brokers, license holders, doctors,
dentists; criminal records; inmates; birth and death records;
marriages; property sales; sex offenders; permits issued; driving
records; etc, etc.
However, there is very little consistency in how these records are
managed or made available from one jurisdiction to the next. In
county A the files are online and easily available via a plain
English. In county B, one must register and pay a steep fee to access
an online system of records. Over in County C, the records are
ostensibly available online, but through a system so dense and
impenetrable, that calling them "publicly available records" is
something of a misnomer. And in County D, forget about online records
entirely...if you want to find out what's available, you'll have to
make a trip downtown.
The service performed by commercial operations like Lexis-Nexis, or
Intellius, is that they comb through these myriad sources, and pull
the information into a relatively standardized national database, so
that a single search can uncover oodles of information from multiple
And even a service like SearchSystems.net -- though it is only a
pointer service, rather than an actual provider of the content of
public records -- performs an enormously valuable function by merely
letting people know what's available online, and wher to go to start
the access process.
You also asked about research and formal studies of public record
access. There doesn't appear to be a great deal of formal work on
this topic -- most research focuses on the access vs privacy debate.
However, there is certainly some material that is relevant to your
Learning to Govern Online
Federal Agency Internet Use
The American Review of Public Administration
Vol. 32, No. 3, 326-349 (2002)
E-government and the judicial system: online access to case information
Electronic Government, an International Journal
Issue: Volume 1, Number 2 / 2004
Pages: 166 - 178
...The technological revolution has been slow in coming to the
judicial system, yet there are few places in which technology can have
more of an immediate and beneficial impact. This paper examines the
current state of online access to case information in the US judicial
Web cutoff causes Butler backlash
Order from judges burdens Butler office
July 8, 2003
...When a pair of Butler County judges shut off Internet access to
their courts' records, they opened the floodgates, says Cindy
Carpenter, the county's clerk of courts.
CASE INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET:
CAN IT SOLVE A PUBLIC ACCESS PROBLEM IN THE FAIRFAX COUNTY GENERAL DISTRICT COURT?
...The Fairfax County General District Court has a public access
problem that might be partially remedied by making information from
the court's case management system available for remote public access
over the Internet. Prior to implementing such a system, however, there
are a number of considerations that must be carefully examined. This
paper looks at some of the legal and ethical issues of disseminating
court data electronically, discusses the need to balance the public's
right to know versus the individual's right to privacy, and offers
recommendations for the court.
Screen Level Bureaucracy:
Databases As Public Records
July 15, 2003
...'E-government' is hot. Providing better service by automating
'business processes' is an exciting prospect for improving government.
Yet, there has not been the same level of effort at making it easier
for the public to obtain information about what its government is
doing. This paper focuses on the constraints and opportunities in
making database information available to the public.
A Comparative E-Government Analysis of New Jersey's
10 Largest Municipalities
...this research assesses the services provided by New Jersey's
largest municipalities online, and suggests a blueprint for
PUBLIC AVAILABILITY OR PRACTICAL OBSCURITY:
THE DEBATE OVER PUBLIC ACCESS TO COURT RECORDS ON THE INTERNET
NEW YORK LAW SCHOOL LAW REVIEW
...Part I of this Note explores the history of access to court
proceedings and records found in United States Supreme Court and New
York State jurisprudence. Part II examines recent federal legislation
adopted by New York that limits access to portions of documents posted
on the Internet that have been freely available for public viewing in
There are also some useful write-ups that you should be aware of:
Know Where to Get the Records
Negotiating for Public Records
and this search engine supposedly zeroes in on public record
information, though (in my limited use of it) I haven't yet been very
impressed with the results:
Public Records Search Engine
Still...it's a concept worth noting.
I trust the information presented here fully meets your needs.
However, please do not rate this answer if there are still areas you
would like to have addressed. Just post a REquest for Clarification
to let me know how I can assist you, and I am at your service.
All the best in your efforts.