Restored Historic Court Records Are Returned to Virgin Islands
A once-decaying book of court records, dating to before the American Revolution, has been painstakingly repaired and returned to federal court officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Wilma A. Lewis, chief judge of the District Court of the Virgin Islands, received a restored and rebound edition of the records, at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) in Washington, D.C., during a recent orientation for new chief judges.
“I am very pleased with the high quality of the restoration,” Judge Lewis said. “These improvements have ensured that the Placard Book for 1767-1880 will remain a viable and visible part of the historical legacy of the District Court of the Virgin Islands. … Without the preservation of this book, and others like it, a salient part of our history would be lost to us and to future generations.”
The large leather-bound book was found last year in the file room of the Virgin Islands district courthouse, during a survey to determine which old court records could be reported as outdated to the National Archives’ Federal Records Center, and which should remain in the court’s possession.
Omar Herran, the Judiciary Records Officer and supervisor of the Judiciary’s Records Management Program, said he found the aging book in “an old filing cabinet at the end of a storage room. There was an overwhelming number of boxes and cabinets.”
The cover was worn, and sections of the spine were gone. The darkened, musty pages showed signs of advanced acid decay, and the threads binding them together were loose. Some pages had flaked into fragments.
But the records from 1767 through 1880—most written in Danish from when the islands were still a colony of Denmark—were kept in meticulous and clearly legible penmanship.
Herran consulted with the National Archives, and they agreed that the restoration should make the book functional but not use new materials. “We decided to preserve the content and binding as close as possible to the original,” Herran said. “The intent is not to modernize the documents but to stabilize them, so they can be exhibited and handled without gloves, while preserving the book’s original integrity.” He also determined to preserve the book digitally, as well as in hard copy.
A Rockville-based book conservation company separated the book’s pages and bathed them in a base solution. The process provides long-term protection by neutralizing acids present in the paper and creating an alkaline buffer against future acid decay.
In addition, fragmented pages were assembled together “like a puzzle” and mounted on thin Japanese tissue paper. Once assembled, the pages were re-sewn onto vellum tape to provide individual page integrity and added support. The reconstruction technique matched the book’s original binding method, Herran said. After digital images were captured of each page, the book was sewn back together and returned to Judge Lewis in an acid-free, archival, clamshell protective box.
A preliminary translation of the records showed that Denmark played a broader role than is seen in U.S. federal courts. As the primary representative of the Danish king, the court dealt with such non-judicial topics as decrees from the king, local harbor rules, plantation reports, appointments to civil positions, taxes and tariffs, street cleaning, and issues related to slavery.
Denmark sold the Virgin Islands, which include St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, to the United States in 1917.
Herran’s office has been asked to repair two additional books from the Virgin Islands, delivered to him by Judge Lewis in bubble wrap protection. A newer records book, covering the years 1880 to 1915, appears to be more deteriorated than the book just repaired, he said.
“This project has been unique in my experience,” Herran said. “I’ve never come across records 250 years old, preceding the Constitution and our own government.”
He added: “Any time you have a collection of records that is the only source of the information it documents, that increases the collection’s historical value. There’s potential for academics and historians to use these records for purposes and research we may not yet anticipate. It is a great privilege to provide unique historical assets for others to appreciate and use many years from now.”
Related Topics: Judicial History