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Library of Virginia (LVA) staff, partners, and dignitaries gathered at the Goochland County courthouse Thursday to celebrate a milestone in a project that aims to put Virginia’s historic chancery court documents online.

Attendees compare inkjet copies of selected original images from the Goochland chancery collection.

The Goochland County Chancery Causes include the five millionth chancery image scanned by the Library of Virginia’s innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program. The records are the latest local records to be processed, indexed and digitally reformatted. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate what we’ve accomplished as a team,” said Carl Childs, Local Records Services Director. “It really is a team effort. It takes many different areas of the LVA working closely with the staff at the courthouses to complete these projects.”

The chancery digitization project began in 2005 with a pilot program in Fauquier County and now includes collections from 47 Virginia localities. Each of Virginia’s circuit courts created chancery records that contain considerable historical and genealogical information. Because these records rely so heavily on testimony from witnesses, they offer a unique glimpse into the lives of Virginians from the early 18th century to the eve of the First World War. A broad spectrum of citizens—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free—appear in the records. Chancery cases are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding local history.  They show the growth of business and industry in a locality, from taverns and churches to mines and creameries. Childs hopes that the improved access will allow researchers to begin comparative studies of different localities within Virginia.

Among the 119,000 images scanned from the Goochland collection are ones related to disputes over land, wills, divorces, debts, and business issues. The names of slaves suing for their freedom, of the descendants of the Huguenot settlers of Manakin-Towne, of planters, millers, coal miners, church leaders, and ordinary citizens appear in the records. Carefully-drawn plats sometimes illustrate cases involving disputed property lines and mining rights. Ornate marriage certificates and licenses accompany some divorce suits. Broadsides advertise the auction of farms and businesses describing the land and its features or the business and its equipment. This wealth of information is available from any Internet connected computer.

Childs said digitization has many advantages for users compared to microfilm including accommodating multiple users simultaneously, the power to instantly deliver images to users both nationally and internationally, and the ability to capture color — especially useful with plats and maps. “It’s not just genealogists and historians using these records,” Childs said. “There’s title research going on and lawyers using them. There’s a present-day business use going on and we felt like we needed a better product.”

Visit the Chancery Records Index to view the Goochland County collection and those of other available Virginia localities.

Dale Dulaney

Former Archival Assistant

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