During downtown Leesburg’s First Friday event this month, scores of people got a glimpse of a war being quietly waged every day in the Loudoun County Circuit Court archives: the battle against the ravages of time, including mold, bookworms, rust and acid-laden cellophane tape.
About 160 people stepped through the doors of Leesburg’s 122-year-old courthouse — away from the sounds of al fresco diners and street musicians — to learn how the county’s historic records are being preserved and restored.
Staff members and volunteers who work with the documents were stationed around the old courtroom to show how they are protecting the records, the care of which is the responsibility of the Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Eric Larson, manager of historic records, demonstrated some of the tools of his trade — acid-free tape, folders, document boxes, vice grips to remove rusty metal pins that hold deed books together, and a small spatula for smoothing out paper creases.
Many of the older records, Larson said, are literally tied up in red tape — red ribbons that were routinely used to secure papers. A bundle of probate records on display had probably not been opened since the clerk bound them in 1883, he said.
At the next station, volunteer John Fishback showed how the stiff papers are heavily creased when they are unbundled, making them hard to scan.
The solution is decidedly low-tech, Fishback said. They use a plastic storage container filled with a few inches of water as a “humidity tank.” The unbundled papers are placed on a tray floating in the water, and the container is covered.
“The paper is thirsty,” Fishback said. “It absorbs the humidity and gets very relaxed, very supple.” Six hours in the humidity tank, followed by 24 hours under a heavy weight, is sufficient to flatten out the documents for scanning without damaging the paper, he said.
Sarah Markel, historic records clerk, showed a leather-bound book that was disintegrating because of rot. An old tax book had gotten moldy from water damage. Both volumes had deteriorated to the point that their contents were in danger of being lost, she said.
Other books had been damaged by improper mending techniques. In the past, cellophane tape was commonly used to repair torn paper. Over time, the acid in the tape eats through the paper, Markel said.
In the mid-20th century, some custodians of the records thought they could protect paper by laminating it. That was also a mistake, Markel said, because the laminate breaks down the paper. She showed a book that had undergone a chemical treatment process to remove the laminate and acid from the paper.
“It came back in beautiful, pristine condition,” she said.
Rather than laminate, archivists now cover the pages with a plastic that keeps oil from human fingers from going into the paper. The plastic sleeves have openings at each end to allow air to circulate around the documents, Markel said.
She also showed books that have been compromised by bookworms and by rust from metal fasteners. One old bond book had been so badly damaged by water, insects and mold that it was beyond repair.
“If you touch the pages, it just turns to dust,” Markel said.
It costs $1,500 to $5,000 to restore the record books, Larson said. Some documents are even more costly. Larson estimated that it would cost $5,000 to $10,000 to restore the will of Oatlands resident Mary Carter, which has been badly torn and glued to cardboard.
The repairs are funded by grants the county receives twice a year from the Library of Virginia. The grant money comes from fees that are collected on court filings in Virginia, Larson said. The county also receives technology grants that pay for scanning and digitizing the collection of records.
“Our goal is to have all of the historic records in a digital format for people to look at, and therefore reduce the touching and handling of the really fragile papers,” said Gary Clemens, clerk of the Circuit Court. But the conservation process doesn’t end there.
“The technology’s always evolving, so you’ve got to make sure . . . they’re retained in a manner where they can be converted over to the next level,” Clemens said.