Court Records Preservation Pioneers: Martha Woodroof Hiden

Portrait of Martha Hiden, Courtesy of Newport News Public Library. The naming of the local history and genealogy reading room at Newport News Public Library after Martha Woodroof Hiden is well deserved. Born in Orange County, Virginia, in 1883, Hiden graduated from Randolph-Macon College and went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago and The College of William & Mary. In 1909 she married Philip W. Hiden, who became the first mayor of Newport News, the city where she spent the rest of her life. She ran her husband’s business after his death in 1936, and went on to serve as a member of the board of visitors at William & Mary, an executive at the Virginia Historical Society, and a board member of the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia). An accomplished and scholarly researcher, she authored numerous reviews, articles, and books on Virginia history and genealogy.

With all those accomplishments, however, her work with Virginia city and county court records might be her most important achievement. More than most, she understood the historical significance of the records and their need to be preserved. Among her writing on Virginia history, she published essays on court records, outlining the importance of each of the “classes” or record groups, explaining their use and purpose as few had done before, and laying the groundwork for social historians of the future. In her aptly titled 1940 article “Virginia County Court Records,” she “confines” the discussion to “the paper, ink, and binding used in them, and the methods for their preservation.” Correspondence and other documents in the archives at the Library of Virginia demonstrate her commitment to the care and restoration of these records. Hiden worked hand in hand with the state archivist at the Library, serving as something of a field agent, examining volumes at the courthouses, and transporting them to and from the Library for treatment by its conservator. In a 1946 article, Hiden claimed that in 25 years of service she had visited more than 100 counties and cities, “examining the condition of the records, sorting over loose papers and carrying books and papers to the State Library. In coal sheds, musty basements, chilly disused jails, hot attics of old clerks’ offices and unused courthouses, the work of sorting, selecting, packing and transporting has been carried on from year to year with the sole aim of preserving Virginia’s wealth of historical documents.” Then, as today, conservation treatment for these books and loose records could be expensive and funding was limited. Hiden sought out organizations with a shared appreciation for the historical significance of these court records, such as ladies’ patriotic societies, and looked to them to cover or defray the conservation cost. In time, she served as chair of the State Committee for the Preservation and Restoration of Virginia Court Records with the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Seventy years ago Hiden wrote: “Because of the devoted service of the justices and clerks we have a vast amount of source material from which an adequate history of the Commonwealth can some day be written.” She died in 1959, but would undoubtedly be pleased with the efforts made by the CCRP in partnership with Local Records Services staff at the Library of Virginia and the participating clerks’ offices throughout the commonwealth. The Martha Woodroof Hiden Virginiana Collection Reading Room is a fitting tribute to someone who worked so tirelessly in advocating the preservation of Virginia county court records.

 

–Eddie Woodward, Senior Local Records Consulting Archivist

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