B-6: Finding Your Inner Nancy Drew: Public Records Resources Online


Presenters: Jennifer McMahan and Bridget Gilhool

I was looking forward to this presentation since the moment I saw it on the schedule, lo these many months ago.  I teach a course in litigation and ADR research which includes a section on public records, and was hoping to see some new resources to show my students.  (I was not disappointed!)  That said, I think that just about any law librarian would benefit from this program. 

The most important point about “Finding Your Inner Nancy Drew” is that the presentation was incredibly useful.  Jennifer McMahon and Bridget Gilhool have done sessions like this many times in the past, and it showed in their vast knowledge of the subject, combined with real-world tips.  These included always checking any records website to gauge its accuracy (using yourself as an example search is a good way to do this).  Even the smallest tips can save a lot of time: when doing a basic Google search for public records, searching for “LastName, FirstName” instead of “FirstName LastName” is likely to yield many more useful results, as this is how many records are written. 

Another note is that although McMahan and Gilhool tried to focus on free resources, they did point out that some websites have changed from free to paid and then back to free again, so it is always best to check.  As well, when one has access to websites that summarize public records, it can be useful to start there, and then head to more specific databases to verify individual points.

The session was completely packed with information—six pages of useful links (handout available here), broken down into categories such as birth and death records, marriage and divorce records, and information on people who are licensed to drive, affiliated with a corporation, registered to vote, or have graduated from college.  (This last can be surprisingly tricky—college degrees are not a matter of public record.)

The presenters kept their talk interesting by using the websites to search for famous people and organizations: one of the lawyers in the Lizzie Borden murder trial (for a local connection), Laura Bush, and other political and pop culture celebrities made appearances.  In fact, I would have preferred even more examples like these, especially because they showed how one can dig deeper into some of the websites.

Overall, an excellent session that will be extremely useful to me in the coming months and years.  Highly recommended for any librarian who has ever needed to search public records.