or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Accessing Public Records

   April 5th, 2007

Seal of the Commonwealth of MassachusettsIn response to the recent local press coverage of "Sunshine Week," the Chelmsford Police Department held a public records seminar. The seminar was led by Rebecca Murray, an attorney in the Public Records Division of the MA Secretary of the Commonwealth's Office.

The seminar was designed to inform public employees (in this case, mostly police department clerks and officers) how the MA Public Records Law (as opposed to the federal FIOA) addresses access to public records, and how to handle requests for public records from the public.

The seminar was excellent, and I learned a lot. There were two handouts - one was the Commonwealth's A Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law [pdf], and the other a bulletin from the Supervisor of Public Records that can serve as sort of a "frequently asked questions" list (contact for copies).

I posted a summary on my library's blog. I structured it to be from the public's point of view, rather than that of a public records clerk. I also developed a handout [pdf] based around information from this seminar.

Library Records as Public Records
Also, a footnote for libraries: to the information available through the public records law, there are a number of exemptions that can exclude information (such as personnel information, information about an ongoing investigation, etc.). Up until 1988, Exemption (k) excluded patron records from public libraries from public record. In 1988, the Commonwealth repealed this exemption in order to make it a separate law unto itself. MA General Law chapter 78 section 7 reads in part:

"...[T]hat part of the records of a public library which reveals the identity and intellectual pursuits of a person using such library shall not be a public record..."

I know state law gets trumped by the USA PATRIOT Act, but still - it's nice to have this on the books.

libraries, library, public document, public documents, public libraries, public library, public record, public records, sunshine laws, sunshine week

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