An additional grant from the Library of Virginia will help defray costs associated with efforts by the Arlington Circuit Court to digitize land records and make them available online.
State officials on Dec. 8 considered 96 applications for records preservation, and voted to provide the $12,276 requested by Arlington for its efforts. County Board members on Dec. 11 were set to formally accept the funding.
“Arlington County Circuit Court applies for and obtains funding from this program each year,” Clerk of Court Paul Ferguson told the Sun Gazette. “This $12,276 is for four deed books from the 1800s that needed preservation.”
The clerk’s office went forward with the preservation effort in anticipation of the grant funding. All the county’s land records dating back to 1869 have now been digitized.
“It is important to do this, as ink fades, paper degrades and some deed books are viewed so frequently that they are over-handled,” Ferguson said. “The preservation process brings the books back into excellent condition and preserves them with a binding that allows the public to view them without damaging them.”
Keeping the records online also helps to minimize damage in case of courthouse fires, which over the centuries have wiped out enormous amounts of legal documentation across the nation.
Arlington dodged a bullet in that regard back in 1990, when a plumbing leak in the floor above the clerk’s office (in the old courthouse building) shorted out some electrical systems.
While the originals of some civil litigation were lost, “by then all of our land records were kept on microfilm which were available within days of the fire even though the old deed books needed to be cleaned from potential asbestos contamination before they could be accessed,” recalled former Clerk of Court David Bell, who lived through the situation.
While the destruction turned out to be minimal, at least compared to what it could have been, “the fire was a traumatic event both in my life and all those that worked in the Circuit Court environs,” Bell told the Sun Gazette.
One of those on today’s front lines of preserving the past is Nancy Van Doren, a deputy clerk of court and land-records supervisor.
“To work among these large deed volumes is amazing,” she said. “To turn the pages is to walk through history. People cursively wrote, then typed, and now electronically create these pages that document how land has changed hands and developed over time.”
“As one reads the documents and the earliest, beautiful handwriting, one sees the streets and neighborhoods that make up our present day Arlington,” she said. “One sees the names of families, neighbors who have lived here for generations. Arlington’s physical history is in these volumes. We are extremely careful to preserve and maintain the books so they can be perused by generations of citizens to come.”
And even in this increasingly online world, there are those who come in to look at the original source material, although those doing title searches (often in connection with the mortgage-approval process) are more likely to use the online option or view the scanned images in kiosks at the clerk’s office.
“It is usually members of the public and historians who want to look at the detail in the actual older deed books,” Ferguson told the Sun Gazette. “Some prefer or need to view the original documents because the digitized versions are not always perfect replicas.”
The grant funding does not come out of the pockets of Virginia taxpayers. Instead, there is a $3.50 fee for land documents filed in court offices across the commonwealth, which is used by the Library of Virginia to provide the stipends.