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The Commonwealth of Virginia, the Library of Virginia, and the 120 circuit court clerks’ offices across the state can document the history of their collaborative efforts to preserve court and local government records in a number of ways. For example, the archives at the Library of Virginia includes surveys, inventories, and photographs created by the first state archivist, Morgan P. Robinson, in the 1910s to 1920s, when he traveled across Virginia examining the courthouses, clerks’ offices, and the condition and completeness of each locality’s records.

In 1874, the state senate published the Annual Report of the Joint Committee of the State Library, which included the results of an inventory questionnaire sent to all of the circuit court clerks’ offices. During the Civil War, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation encouraging courthouses in the path of Union forces to move their records to the state capital for safekeeping (and we all know how that turned out).

As a matter of fact, Virginia’s preservation efforts can be documented as far back as at least the colonial period, when in 1745, the House of Burgesses passed an “Act, for the better regulating and collecting certain Officers Fees; and other purposes therein mentioned.” A section of that act reads:

And whereas several of the county court clerks in this colony, have neglected to record deeds, wills, and other matters of consequence, Be it enacted, That the justices of the several county courts shall annually, appoint two or more fit persons, of their number, to inspect the clerk’s office of their county, and to report to the next court, the condition in which they find the papers and records.

The rules regarding these mandated inspections of clerks’ offices varied slightly over the years, and were not always adhered to. The inspections appear sometimes to have resulted in reports, which if they survive, are difficult to track down. They might be filed with the clerk’s correspondence or papers, with judgments, in random court papers, and sometimes with records related to public buildings and grounds. The reports might include information about the storage situation and environmental issues with the office or building. They sometimes include inventories of the records, and occasionally include information regarding the condition of the records.

These surveys are interesting in that they offer a snapshot of the clerk’s office at a moment in time, which can be helpful today as archivists from the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program continue with these collaborative conservation efforts with the clerks’ offices across the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Read on for some examples of inspection reports from four Virginia counties in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Cumberland County, 1772

In a brief inspection of the Cumberland County clerk’s office from 1772, the appointed examiners found all the wills, inventories, deeds, guardians’ accounts, judgments, and orders all “duly recorded,” and an office that appeared to be “regularly kept.”

New Kent County, 1858

Another brief inspection, this one of the New Kent County clerk’s office in 1858, shows that the inspectors examined the fee books “and the condition of the records and papers in the office of the clerk,” and declared that the “clerk has faithfully discharged his duties.”

City of Lynchburg, 1870

Shown here are seven pages of an elaborate 16-page report of the City of Lynchburg’s circuit court clerk’s office from 1870. In it, the examiners (or commissioners) created a detailed list of every anomaly, including documents missing from the office (and who the examiners felt was “responsible for their loss”), chancery cases “dropped” from the dockets without authority, chancery causes on the “sleeping docket,” and missing law papers. The examiners went on to note that both the law and chancery papers during the clerkship of L. Peyton had been

…badly cared for & deprovided with wrappers & many of them are in a bad state of preservation. In some instances the bill or outside paper is half worn away. This is often ascribable to being carried in the pocket of the counsel or in their wallets & bring thrown about in their offices. We find lying about the office a large number of old papers which seem to have been lost or which former clerks have failed to label ended. The immediate predecessor of Mr. Preston seems to have been especially negligent about the care of papers & to have devoted very little attention to the keeping them in place or well preserved.

The examiners went on to note the unsatisfactory condition of the fiduciary bonds and certificates of deposit. Given the disheveled nature of the office, they expressed concern that some records of value may have been stolen.

They also examined the condition and completeness of the chancery order books (“in a reasonable state of preservation”), chancery fee books, chancery rule books, execution books, and law books, law execution books, and rule books (all three “very neatly kept”). After noting the lack of indices and poor labeling, the examiners complained that the “books of the office were piled & stored away helter-skelter in cuddies & corners without reference to numbers kinds or chronological order. As a consequence of all this the books are not now in as good a state of preservation as they ought to be in.”

After citing the inadequate storage conditions, the examiners went on to recommend appropriate shelving and other furniture for the clerk’s office. The report concludes, “In these matters the comfort of persons who take no interest in the neatness or preservation of archives must be catered to, or the public will suffer.”

Albemarle County, Undated

This undated inspection of the Albemarle County clerk’s office includes an inventory of deed books, execution books, issue dockets, minute books, rule books, and will books, along with a description of the condition of each. For example, the condition of the Deed Book, 1763-1767, is described as “Binding much worn, and Index tattered—Paper for new index cannot be put in without rebinding.” The Chancery Rule Book, 1824-1825, is “sound, but being originally too small to contain all the cases, a few loose sheets have been laid in at the end, which can be transcribed on other paper & that can be fastened in with a needle.”

The inventory includes the “County Map” (“wants rollers”), and the loose papers in the lower room and passage above. These papers are variously described as wanting labels and in bundles that had “become many of them rotten, and many of them very dirty.” The papers were “in a state of great confusion & derangement,” and many of the bundles without string and proper labeling, had become intermixed and would need to be separated and arranged.

Eddie Woodward

Sr. Local Records Consulting Archivist

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