A genealogical gem

Published 8:41 am Saturday, March 7, 2009

COURTLAND—An ambitious project is under way in Southampton County to digitize, index and put online all of the county’s records from 1749 to 1880.

When completed, Southampton will be the first county in the nation to have done so.

“Virginia has some of the greatest genealogy gems there are to be found,” said Kenneth Brantley, a genealogy consultant from Powder Springs, Ga. “They’re buried in the courthouses. What we’re doing here is making them available and indexing them.”

Since his arrival on Feb. 11, Brantley has digitized 120 to 130 books, the oldest in the county’s records room in Courtland. Bruce Saunders, of the Southampton County Historical Society, has been assisting Brantley and has volunteered to index several of them.

More volunteers are needed to complete the indexing part of the project.

“This is going to be a big asset to everyone in the county,” Brantley said. “If someone is doing research, that person will be able to further their research after a book is indexed. So that person has a vested interest in this project.”

For the digitizing part of the project, Brantley set up shop in a back corner of the records room. A sheet hangs in the window to block out the afternoon sunlight. He wears latex gloves and sits at a white laminate drawing table. A large tripod stands at the head of the table, supporting a pair of digital cameras, each pointed downward, positioned precisely in the middle of a book page.

The cameras are rigged to two remote controls, which Brantley has under the table. He has attached the remotes to an office hole puncher mounted under the table. When he bumps the hole puncher handle with his knee, both cameras take a picture simultaneously.

Using a software program called FastStone, Brantley crops and adjusts the brightness and contrast of the digitized pages on his laptop, making the antiquated, yet near-perfect, penmanship of the handwritten records a little easier to read, and therefore, easier to index.

“Some of these clerks, they never wavered,” Brantley said. “They just wrote straight from one side to the other. The pages have no lines. It’s just beautiful penmanship from one side to the other. And no corrections.”

The digitized pages are then burned onto CDs for volunteers to start perusing them. Instructions are also included on the CDs; volunteers are asked to read each page and enter, in Microsoft Word, every name they come across. When finished, Brantley will take the names and use another program to create the index file.

Brantley said that as of Wednesday, they had volunteers committed to do 12 of the more than 100 books. Most of the books are about 300 to 400 pages. Deed books are more than 750 pages.

“When the community sees and realizes the potential for this project, we’re hoping more volunteers are going to come out of the woodwork,” Brantley said.

Southampton County Circuit Court Clerk Rick Francis said Brantley came up with the idea for the project after coming to the county to do genealogical research on the Brantley family. Francis said the Board of Supervisors approved and agreed to underwrite the project. Brantley is not charging anything for his time, and the county is paying for Brantley’s food and lodging expenses.

“Quite frankly, we’re going to be considerably under budget because Mr. Brantley has just been so quick,” Francis said. “We thought that when we made the proposal that it would take a team of us.”

Francis said the records would eventually be put online on the county clerk’s Web site, which is attached to the Southampton County government Web site.

Brantley said Southampton County was very fortunate to have its records in such good condition.

“They have been carefully maintained under the jurisdiction of all of these clerks over the years,” Brantley said, adding that Southampton had used fine paper and penmanship.

“They are remarkable records, they really are. They’re better than any that I’ve seen anywhere. All of them were very painstaking in the entry of all these records; it’s just like they were prepared for it (digitizing).”

Saunders added, “They’re just beautiful.”