n.a record created or received by a government official or agency as part of their official duty or functionScott 1970, 6I make these comments only to emphasize that the records of the office of Governor cannot logically be excluded from the statutory definition of public records, which in my State reads: “Public records comprise all written or printed books, papers, letters, documents and maps made and received in pursuance of law by the public offices of the State and its counties, municipalities and other subdivisions of government in the transaction of public business.”Jones 1980, 23Two centuries later, simplicity is no longer in vogue, and the word records, modified only by the adjective public, now carries this lengthy definition: ¶ PUBLIC RECORDS: All documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data processing records, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency or officer of government.Schellenberg 1984, 58Public records are created to accomplish the purposes for which an agency has been created—administrative, fiscal, legal, and operating. These uses are of course of first importance. But public records are preserved in an archival institution because they have values that will exist long after they cease to be of current use, and because their values will be for others then the current users.Peterson and Peterson 1985, 92In the case of public records the government seeking replevin must establish that the records were made or received as part of the official function of the government and that the records, on their face, put a purchaser on notice that they are public document.Stoykovich 2017a, 136During the Civil War, Americans evacuated, seized, damaged, and, occasionally, destroyed public archives and government records. The officials who served the Union and the Confederacy relied upon public records and preserved national archives to make war decisions, bolster public opinion, and represent the people.Zanish-Belcher 2019a, 18Over the past three decades, there have been increasing pressures on the very concept of public records, something so key to the functioning of our American democracy. Secrecy and efforts to hide corruption and wrongdoing and “fake news” have been present in our political life dating back to the earliest days of the republic. As we now live in a digital world, many of our basic beliefs about what can be controlled in the creation or alteration of a record, its authenticity, and its very meaning are called into question. Preservation and access to the public record, whether you are a government records archivist or not, should be a concern to you as a citizen.a record preserved in a government archives for future reference; public archivesLathrop 1986, 415Smith v. Paul concerned an architect, Ernest M. Smith, who complied with local ordinances and filed a set of house plans in a county office in order to obtain a building permit. The defendant saw those plans, considered them to be a public record, and copied them for use in constructing a similar residence.Voss-Hubbard 1995, 16While the establishment of the National Archives ensured the preservation of the public record, a quest to salvage the record of women’s role in civilization was just beginning.Hefner 1996, 82–83The archival profession has a long-standing prohibition on public records being collected by non-public institutions, and these perspectives have been incorporated into the Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics. In 1954 in his famous treatise, Modern Archives, Theodore Schellenberg wrote: ¶ While libraries have often collected public archives, this practice is to be deprecated . . . After a government has established . . . an archival institution, . . . the library under such circumstances should not collect public records at all. Nor should it keep archival items that have been improperly alienated from a government, for such items belong with the related records.Norton 2003, 135A further implication of democracy is that the records of the government are public records, open to inspection by anyone who applies to see them subject only to reasonable restrictions as to hours of access and protection against theft, alterations, or other physical hazards.a record that is the property of the citizens of a state or nationJones 1980, 23Public records are public property, owned by the people in the same sense that the citizens own their own courthouse or town hall, sidewalks and streets, funds in the treasury. They are held in trust for citizens by custodians—usually the heads of the agencies in which the records have been accumulated, but sometimes by other officers to whom custody has been officially transferred by the governing authority. Public records may not be sold, given away, destroyed, or alienated from custody except through an official act of the governing authority in accordance with provisions of any state law relating to their care and disposition.Schellenberg 1996, 122Any definition of “public records” should be based on the premise that such records are public property. They are the property of all the citizens, who collectively constitute the state.Norton 2003, 32We try to explain that public records in a democracy belong to the people; that our government is made up of officials merely delegated to do for the people what the people cannot do effectively as individuals; that our officials do not own the records which they create but merely act as custodians of the records on behalf of the people; that the origin of the custom of placing our most important records in the hands of county officials was to be able to watch over them and control them as officials of a remote central bureau could not be watched and controlled.Behrnd-Klodt 2008, 156No single federal law or state statute governs or even clarifies all aspects of the public’s right to access public records.Behrnd-Klodt 2008, 165Public interest and sentiment and the increasing governmental need for secrecy also affect access to public records and information.Behrnd-Klodt 2008, 169When public records disappear, and are known to be elsewhere, public archives occasionally employ replevin to recover the records of the public’s business and to ensure the integrity of the public record.Slate and Minchew 2016, xviiBy preserving public records created by governmental bodies as archives, local governments preserve institutional memory and evidence of transactions, as well as the context related to the activity. . . . ¶ Public records are like no other kind of record because they belong to the public. They are created with public funds by employees paid with public funds, and thus are fully accountable to citizens.
Each state and the federal government have their own legal definition of a public record. These definitions are typically found within open record laws, such as the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While public records document the actions and responsibilities of government, they also serve to protect the rights of citizens. It should be noted that a public record does not always imply public access to that record. Open record laws often include exemptions that provide access restrictions to protect an individual’s right to privacy, to ensure public safety, and to allow for the deliberative process.