Historians cry foul when Va. county tosses records

7/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Associated Press

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Albemarle County officials are reviewing their policies for purging records after they tossed Depression-era land records that local preservationists said included important information for historians and genealogy researchers.

Albemarle County spokeswoman Lee Catlin told The Daily Progress of Charlottesville (http://bit.ly/1auVaPG) the records were discarded in May in an effort to conserve space in county offices. State guidelines call for any records created before January 1904 to first be offered to the Library of Virginia before being tossed, but these didn't qualify.

"We were making efforts to look at how we could reduce the number of records and increase space for our offices and we discussed with the state what we needed to retained and what could be discarded," Catlin said. "We followed those guidelines closely."

The records, compiled by workers for the Works Progress Administration, often were used by modern-day researchers interested in determining how properties were used and who lived there. The records included notes on family histories on local properties.

They were compiled as part of a national effort to catalog land use and farming methods, said Steven Meeks, head of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did aerial photography of the entire country in 1937 and part of that effort was to look at farmland because of Dust Bowl conditions, he said.

The photographs also were used by county governments across the country to develop land use maps and chart, for the first time, tax parcels, according to Meeks and USDA historians.

The Works Progress Administration workers interviewed property owners because, in many cases, land sales were done by handshake agreements and never recorded. The records that were tossed included those notes, which for the first time included the race of the landowner.

Meeks said the documents were important because information included in those notes about people who lived on the land may not have been listed in other historical documents.

Other states have cataloged or saved comments made on deeds during the Works Progress Administration effort. Minnesota has the documents on microfilm. Several counties have included them on websites as a sort of written oral history.

"For people interested in history or genealogical research, these were the first places to start their research," Meeks said, adding that his or other preservation groups "would have gladly received them, if we had known."

The Library of Virginia requires paper copies of real estate assessment records, including deeds, wills, death certificates and title changes, to be held for a year before being discarded. Agricultural land use records are to be held for six years before discarding and tax mapping records are to be kept until they are replaced by newer, up-to-date versions, according to the Library of Virginia.

Catlin said county officials may put in place additional criteria, a move that Meeks said would be supported by the historical society and other preservation groups.

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Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com


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