Here’s a fun website: Detective Forums.
Laugh at my ignorance, but it has taken me nearly a year to realize that “public records” and “open records” have overlapping but to a certain extent separate meanings. This causes confusion for people who use the terms interchangeably, as I have tended to do.
Public records: Available, but you have to know where to look
When many people say public records, what they mean are those documents that governments already routinely make available–such as court records, birth certificates, real estate records–and also include in that idea bits of information that don’t come from the government–such as the “reverse phone” records information touted at Detective Forums–but that many people wish to be able to easily locate. The number of internet web sites that help people find this kind of information is growing by leaps and bounds.
In looking for the type of public record that the government already makes available, the trick for people is figuring out which agency is likely to have that particular piece of information. If you don’t know where to quickly find a piece of information, it’s not public as far as you’re concerned, even if it isn’t the kind of information you’d have to file an open records request for. That’s one reason so many websites, including many commercial websites, have sprung up to meet that demand.
Open records: File a request and cross your fingers
When people say open records, what they almost always mean are records held by a government agency, to which members of the public are entitled, but which are not routinely archived and made available through a set process–in other words, the kind of document you need to file a specific open records or FOIA request to gain access to.
Some interesting (to us) trivia is that WikiFOIA has about four times as many visitors who are searching for “public records” than are searching for “open records” even though, in terms of the distinction I sketched above, we really don’t help much at all with public records although, as a transparency reform, we strongly advocate the idea of transforming many more government documents into “public records”–records that government agencies routinely archives and provides swiftly and professionally, as they currently do with real estate records and so on.
HT: Robert Ambrogi.