Travel for Library of Virginia Circuit Court Records Program (CCRP) consulting archivists begins to taper off when the grants are announced, which this past year occurred on September 6, 2022, and as we get into the winter months it comes to a near standstill. However, after the grant review committee meets, (this year on January 6, 2023) officially ending last year’s grant cycle, we begin to map out our travel plans for the coming year. Our travel is dictated by the number of items that we have examined at each circuit court clerk’s office on prior visits, and whether they have already identified enough items (at least eight) to apply for the upcoming grant cycle. If a locality has not identified eight items, or if the clerk has some particular need for other items to be conserved, then those clerks’ offices are put on our lists to visit. Of course, we might be called out to a clerk’s office for other reasons, such as inventorying collections, training interns and volunteers, records transfers, or archival and environmental consultations.
Generally speaking, we will begin our visits with day trips to those courthouses that are within driving distance of the Library of Virginia in Richmond. This usually means around no more than two or two and a half hours each way, but that can be stretching it because we need time to do our work once we are at the courthouse. As we get farther and farther away from Richmond, we begin to plan overnight visits, grouping courthouses nearby to each other. When we are day tripping, however, sometimes we might go straight from our homes to the courthouses.
The Sussex County Circuit Court Clerk’s office is a part of the Sussex County Courthouse Historic District. The district complex includes the freestanding 1924 clerk's office (left) and the 1828 courthouse, and other county government buildings. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Since the first of the year, I have visited the circuit court clerks’ offices in Greensville County, Dinwiddie County, Southampton County, the City of Virginia Beach, the City of Williamsburg/James City County (twice), and most recently, Sussex County. Of those visits, one was for consulting, three were for records transfers, two were for examining items as potential candidates for CCRP item conservation grants, and one was for CCRP conservation grant candidates, a cellulose acetate lamination inventory, and a records transfer (all-in-one!).
City of Williamsburg/James City County Courthouse
The first visit to the City of Williamsburg/James City County Courthouse involved consultation surrounding records that were unearthed in the courthouse basement, assessing whether they were permanent and if any could be transferred to the Library of Virginia. The second trip to the City of Williamsburg/James City County Courthouse was to transfer selected permanent records to the Library of Virginia where they would be housed in a secure, climate controlled environment.
Modern, commercially produced City of Williamsburg topographical maps such as this one were among the items examined on a visit to the City of Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court Clerk’s office. The items were soon after transferred to the Library of Virginia to be added to the Public Buildings and Grounds series of local government records.
The next trip on January 31 to the office of the Greensville County circuit court clerk, Linda Edwards, involved an inventory and records transfer situation. On this visit, Library of Virginia Records Management Analyst Glenn Smith accompanied me so that he could make on-the-spot appraisals before packing up the older materials to transfer to the Library of Virginia. We were initially going to evaluate and retrieve records from a cabinet of Woodruff drawers in a secure space, as the clerk wanted the cabinet and records removed for more storage.
When we arrived, however, Edwards made us aware that she had found many more bundles of records in the cabinets under the drawers, the bulk of which were transferred to the Library. These records in the bottom cabinets, circa 1781-1929, were an archival jackpot with many historic records, including “free Negro” and slave records. We did not anticipate so much, did not bring enough boxes, and wound up having to borrow some from the clerk’s office (thank you, Ms. Edwards!).
Dinwiddie County and Southampton County Circuit Courts
Dinwiddie County Deputy Clerk Kelly LeBlanc and Dinwiddie County Circuit Court Clerk Barrett Chappell review the newly returned facsimile of the Dinwiddie County Register of Free Negroes, 1850-1864, February 23, 2023.
On February 23, I traveled to Dinwiddie County and Southampton County to deliver facsimiles of “free Negro” registers that the clerks had sent to the Library of Virginia to be scanned for inclusion in Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. Virginia Untold provides digital access to records that document the lives of enslaved and free Black and multiracial people in Virginia prior to the Civil War. The first stop was at the office of the Dinwiddie County circuit court clerk, Barrett Chappell, and then the office of the Southampton County circuit court clerk, Rick Francis.
The Southampton County Courthouse is located in Courtland; however, as it is undergoing heavy renovations, the circuit court clerk’s office and some other courthouse offices are temporarily located in the old abandoned Hunterdale Elementary School in Franklin (not far from Courtland). While I was making my delivery to Southampton, I also spent some time writing up condition reports for CCRP item conservation grants and inventorying the office’s collection of cellulose acetate laminated volumes. The final count for the such volumes at the Southampton County circuit court clerk’s office was fifteen, which was fewer than I anticipated.
City of Virginia Beach Circuit Court
The next stop, on March 2, was at the office of the City of Virginia Beach circuit court clerk, Tina Sinnen, to examine cellulose acetate laminated volumes as candidates for CCRP item conservation grants. This visit was a little unusual; while the clerk already had enough items in the queue for the upcoming grant cycle, she had asked that I come to her office to identify and write up condition reports for those that I deemed to be in the worst condition.
Sinnen has taken a special interest in her laminated volumes and in 2018 I performed an inventory in which I identified over 80 cellulose acetate laminated books. It’s worth noting that on this last visit, a rough count of the remaining laminated volumes amounted to approximately 68, indicating that in the years since the original inventory, she had made a significant dent in the cellulose acetate laminated items. However, Virginia Beach still has some of the worst of the worst, including volumes laminated in the 1930s with browning pages and wood boards and volumes that had been improperly conserved in the 1990s by encapsulating the laminated pages. Recently, some volumes were determined were too unstable to delaminate without causing further damage. Condition reports were written up for these items, eleven in all.
Sussex County Circuit Court
On March 16, 2023, I traveled to the office of the Sussex County circuit court clerk, Gary Williams, in Sussex. It’s worth noting that this was the first circuit court clerk’s office that I visited when I began traveling in 2016. It is also worth noting that Williams is the longest-serving circuit court clerk in the Commonwealth of Virginia, having been first elected to the position in 1975.
The “courthouse complex” is located in a sleepy crossroads hamlet consisting of the 1828 courthouse, the 1924 clerk’s office, and a few other county administrative buildings. The freestanding clerk’s office is notorious for being the only records room with a screen door.
270 page Sussex County Land Books, 1876-1880; Reassessment Book, 1875 consists of various years and size land books that were bound together at a later date. The pages are brittle, crumpled, and tearing/splitting with numerous tape repairs and reinforcements. In some instances, missing portions of pages have been reconstructed with pressure sensitive tape
For the entire time I have been visiting with him, Williams has had the conservation of marriage records as his number one priority. This time he was ready to move on to other court records, as the more recent marriage licenses were not in poor condition and would in all likelihood not be approved for conservation by the grant review committee. However, the marriage records had a good run and had been conserved uniformly from 1865 to 1955. Fifteen volumes of marriage bonds might be another option in the future as they were all loose records that were cellulose acetate laminated and then bound in volumes.
The priority for Sussex County moving forward, at least for this visit, was the Sussex County land books. Tax books are notorious for their poor condition, possibly because of their awkward, oblong shape and those at the Sussex County circuit court clerk’s office were no exception, making them worthy candidates for CCRP item conservation grants.