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Public Records: Overview

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What are public records?

Public records are documents created by or about a government body that can be viewed by the general public.

  • Not all government records are required to be public by law. 
  • Transparency laws vary from state to state.
  • Not all records have been digitized. Business, court, tax, and property records or contemporary records are more likely to have been digitized.
  • You may need to access records at a physical office (typical for historical materials) or by making a FOIA or FOIL request.

Finding Public Records

  • Search for the tool to find the record rather than searching for the specific piece of information. For example, for finding a property's tax value in Dallas, you would search "Dallas County property search" instead of searching for the specific address.
  • Think about what governmental agency might collect the information you are looking for and include that in your search terms.
  • Records are collected at different levels of government. For example, property taxes are usually collected at the county level, so the records for property tax values must be obtained from the individual county.
  • Useful search terms include: search, lookup, directory, archive, government, (in Google)

Types of Information Found in Public Records

  • Phone and address information
  • Personal and commercial property value, ownership, and square footage
  • Citizen voting records
  • Congressional voting records and campaign contributions
  • Federal agency records
  • Building inspections and permits, restaurant inspections, health permits, OSHA and health inspections, cruise ship inspections
  • Business and contractor licenses
  • Jail and inmate records, crime data, sex offender registration, arrest warrants
  • Marriage, divorce records
  • Government employee information and salary data
  • Traffic cameras and reports
  • Superfund sites, waste management plans and reports, toxic chemical databases, pollution maps, and radiation reports

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Megan Heuer