Monday, August 18, 2014

The Vital Role of Vital Statistics in Massachusetts History

As a repository for official state documents, the State Library of Massachusetts has many annual reports from agencies and entities of the commonwealth. The Annual Report of Vital Statistics, or Public Document #1, is an interesting example of our documents collection due to its unique history and value to researchers.

Vital events in Massachusetts, such as births, marriages and deaths, have been kept through a government-operated system since 1639. At this time, most countries with any sort of system for recording and keeping vital events did so through religious officials. But Massachusetts mandated that the responsibility would be given to the clerks in the communities, keeping all vital events at a local level for many years.

This process changed in 1842 when legislature passed a Statewide Act requiring every town and city clerk to send copies of vital events to the Secretary of State, who would, “…prepare therefrom such tabular results as will render them of practical utility, and shall make report thereof annually to the legislature…” The first year covered was 1841, and Massachusetts has continuously collected, processed and published vital statistics every year since then.

Since 1964, some of the responsibilities of collecting and publishing the Annual Report of Vital Statistics were transferred to the Department of Public Health under Chapter 508 of the Acts of 1964. This was done so that vital statistics could be easily connected with health and population research. Nevertheless, the registration of vital records was still the Secretary of State’s job until 1974, when the entire process was taken over by the Department of Public Health.  While certain tables and formats were changed with the transfer of responsibility, the main information about births, deaths, marriages, divorce and population continued.

This data that has been continuously collected for over 150 years is incredibly important for developing policy and programs whether looking at demographics, education or health plans. Being able to easily notice trends in Massachusetts population can aid legislature, specialists and public programmers to better understand who is living, learning and working in our state. But these vital statistics are also a great tool for historians, genealogists and citizens hoping to do local history on their families or towns. The fact that the State Library not only has original copies in our stacks but also digital copies of the Annual Reports  going back to 1841 (as well as Vital Records up to 1850) allows access to data and information that can give anyone a better understanding of our state’s past.

To learn more about how vital records are received and processed under M.G.L 111, Section 2, visit: 

Stephanie Turnbull
Reference Librarian