Early in Genlighten’s development, we made a key decision about the way our providers would deliver the documents they retrieved to their clients. We would require that each provider have access to a digital scanner, so they could take the paper documents they found at the repository, scan them, and upload them to Genlighten in digital form. If the records they searched were on microfilm, a direct microfilm scan would work too. But no paper records were to be mailed to clients.
Rationale For Our All-Digital Strategy
We had five basic reasons for going with this approach:
- The client would effectively receive the record as soon as the provider uploaded it. No waiting for the record to arrive in the mail and no danger of the record getting damaged or lost in transit.
- The provider could add value to their lookup offering by enhancing the image contrast and otherwise improving the resulting document above and beyond the paper or microfilm record quality.
- The client would immediately be able to share the document with friends, archive it on their hard drive, and add it to their genealogy software or website.
- All three parties to the transaction would be able to clearly verify that the lookup had been completed successfully, since the client, the provider and Genlighten could each view the uploaded record.
- Since no snail-mail was involved, no physical addresses would need to be exchanged, enhancing privacy and security.
But What If…
When we decided to go the all-digital route, we knew that we’d eventually run into requests for exceptions, and we figured we’d deal with them as they arose. One obvious edge case: what to do about 50-page probate files? What if providers couldn’t easily get a hold of a scanner with a sheet feeder and they balked at having to scan 50 pages one-by-one? After much deliberation, we decided that in such situations providers could mail the paper copies to “Genlighten World Headquarters”, and we’d take care of the scanning and uploading ourselves on the provider’s behalf. If the volume got to be too much, we saw ourselves outsourcing the task to a service such as Officedrop and deducting the cost from the provider’s share of the lookup fee. So far, no one’s asked us to do that yet.
An Unexpected Legal Issue
But just recently, we had a new provider — Jade Schmitt — come to us with a unique problem. She wanted to offer lookups for pre-1907 birth, marriage and death records for Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). Cool — that’s just the kind of thing we’re looking for. But there was a weird catch. Jade told us that it’s illegal to make digital copies of vital records at the WHS.
We checked it out with the State of Wisconsin, and the official we talked with confirmed: no digitizing the WHS records. There was, however, an intriguing potential loophole. It’s only illegal to scan those records within Wisconsin. So if Jade drove to the Wisconsin-Illinois state line and handed the paper copies to us, we could scan them on our side of the border. (Or she could simply mail them to us, but that’d be a lot less fun!)
1/4 Mile Ahead, Crazy Pete’s Genealogical Document Scanning
When I heard this, I immediately thought of those signs that always greet us on the other side of the Wisconsin border whenever we drive north on I-94: “Crazy Pete’s Fireworks Stand (and cheese!), 1/4 Mile Ahead.” Now imagine Jade driving down from Wisconsin, crossing into Illinois, and seeing the sign “Next Exit, Crazy Pete’s Genealogical Document Scanning.” That’s what this law could apparently lead to!
A Temporary Exception
Until we can nail down this loophole a little more, and hopefully get some kind of formal legal document that ensures we’re always going to be on the right side of the law, we’ve decided to make an exception to our 100% digital document delivery policy for Jade. So she’ll be mailing out paper copies to fulfill the lookup requests she receives.
If you’ve got any suggestions to offer regarding Wisconsin public records law and digital scanning, we’d love to hear from you!