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Statement on Sales of Public Records

The Problem

Government records are paid for by public funds and belong to the citizens of the communities that create them. The sale of public records is an issue that has become problematic in recent years, as an increasing number of government records from federal, state, and local governments are being sold by private individuals and through online auctions, rather than remaining in the ownership of the public as ordained by law. While the buying and selling of records of private individuals and institution s is acceptable on the open market, the buying and selling of government records is not.

Documents designated as public records contain a wealth of invaluable information related to governmental actions that may be of concern to the citizens of the Commonwealth. Their disappearance into private hands deprives the public of access to important historical details concerning the development of property rights, taxation, judicial actions, and community growth. It also disrupts a key element of government accountability and unfairly takes useful historical resources out of the public's reach. A Statement Regarding the Sale of Historical Public Records on eBay (PDF) by the Council of State Archivists stresses that these records "should remain where they are available for public inspection."

We need your help!

To ensure that Pennsylvania's documentary heritage is preserved and made available to all citizens and scholars, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) needs your help to safely and securely return any lost or stolen government records to their agency/office of origin or to the archival holdings of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The Administrative Code of 1929 (PDF) and the History Code (Title 37 of Pennsylvania Code) assign responsibility for the designation, management, and preservation of state and local government records of permanent or historical value to the PHMC. Deeply ingrained within these two regulations is the intent that public records can legally only be in the custody of the originating local or state governmental agency, or legal custody can be transferred over to the PHMC.

What are Public Records?

State Agency Records

Management Directive 210.5, Records Management (PDF) states that "Any recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that documents a transaction or activity of an administrative department, board, or commission and that is created, received, or retained by such administrative department, board, or commission pursuant to law or in connection with the transaction of official business."

County Records

County Records Act of 1963 (PDF) states that "Any papers, dockets, books, maps, photographs, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received in any office of county government in pursuance of law or in connection with transactions of public business in the exercise of its legitimate functions and the discharge of its responsibilities."

Municipal Records

Municipal Records Act of 1968 (PDF) states that "Any papers, books, maps, photographs or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an entity under law or in connection with the exercise of its powers and the discharge of its duties."

What if the government threw the records away?

Government entities in Pennsylvania are required to follow strict procedures when disposing of records. State law requires that the destruction of records shall occur only through the adherence to approved retention schedules and the disposition of records that have been discarded legally will be well documented and easily identified from those retention schedules. Any undocumented claim of disposition may be considered suspect.

What do I do if I find a government document being offered for sale?

Avoid buying, selling, or trading in lost or stolen historical Pennsylvania government documents. Also, please help to identify these types of documents and email the Pennsylvania State Archives immediately or call (717) 783-3281. The Archives will then investigate and help to coordinate the return of any alienated records.

More information

The Council of State Archivists (CoSA) has set up a Web site devoted to replevin and online auction issues. Visit CoSA's Statement Regarding the Sale of Historical Public Records through Online Auctions for more information.

At the federal level, the National Archives is also making efforts to recover lost or stolen federal government historical records, visit the Help the National Archives Recover Lost and Stolen Documents page.