Free Public Records Access

More than three years ago, I wrote about

A good way to find public information online is by using this service from Pacific Information Systems. With links to almost 5,000 public records databases, it's the largest free collection of public records databases on the Web. Note: these are links to databases, not the actual databases themselves.

That was in Oct. 2001. Since then, the site has grown from 5,000 databases to more than 24,000 public record databases. It remains one of the most useful sites for journalists. 

I also wrote about another way to access public records: through Duff Wilson's Who is John Doe -- and how to get the paper on him (since I wrote that July 2003 column, Wilson has moved from the Seattle Times to The New York Times).

This time, I am writing about a free site that's new to me: Pretrieve. Unlike Web sites known as "database aggregators," this site is basically a public records search engine that allows you to search across different categories, such as criminal, court, financial, professional, miscellaneous (birth and death records, for example). You enter the name of a person and a state, and it shows you the relevant link in each category. I spent some time checking out people I know this way and learned some interesting things. Among the tamest findings: a patent application by one my relatives. You can also search by business, address and phone number.
I asked Paul Bunting, who helps run the service, to tell me more about it and the business plan. Here's what he wrote:

Pretrieve categorizes all the relevant free links about the research subject and delivers them back to the user in an easy-to-follow menu format. Additionally, Pretrieve goes the extra distance in user convenience by providing them with pre-scripted java links that take them directly to their search results. Pretrieve pre-executes the search for the user on the third party database so that the next screen they see has their search
results on it. Our business plan is to continue licensing Pretrieve technology to large aggregators as well as continue developing a Web presence through our free public site. We want our free site users to take their research as far as they can on their own, and once they've exhausted the free resources they can feel good about their decision to purchase information from an aggregator.
One thing to change might be the very first result that comes back on a person search. I plugged in my own name (ego surfing is the term for looking for yourself online) and Pretrieve went into action, spitting back several results. The way the first result looked however, at a glance, made me jump. The wording is this: "Is Sreenath Sreenivasan a registered sex offender in New York?" That's because the sex offender database is the first link off the criminal category, which comes up first. Perhaps it'd be better if some other cateogy came up first.

I recommend that every journalist trying to get background information on a source use this to see what comes up.

What I wrote about SearchSystems applies here, as well: "Even if you are not looking for a particular database right now, I strongly recommend testing out this site soon so that you know what's available there. Trying to use it on deadline may not be easy (at that point you might not even remember this resource)."

Your turn: tell me about sites you like at

My Columbia weekend workshop on building a personal website (April 2 & 3, 2005)

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