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Anne Crawford describes Britain's national archive of official documents, and the ways in which it is developing to meet the changing needs of its users.

FEW HISTORIANS, PROFESSIONAL OR AMATEUR, are unaware of the Public Record Office (PRO), the UK's national archives, and there are few historical pursuits that do not lead at some point to its doors. It is the nation's memory,, containing the records of central government and the central courts of law dating back nearly a thousand years, to William the Conqueror's Domesday Book of 1086. It is also a modern, evolving, organisation, constantly seeking ways to improve its services to users.

Set up by Act of Parliament in 1838, the PRO occupied a purpose-built repository in Chancery Lane on part of the old Rolls Estate from 1852 to 1997; the Master of the Rolls was the formal head of the Office, with a Deputy Keeper of the Public Records who ran the Office on his behalf. In 1958, with the passage of the Public Records Act, the Office's head became the Keeper of Public Records and answerable to the Lord Chancellor. In 1992 the PRO became an executive agency. It remains a government department, as is essential for its current records management task within government. Over 20 per cent of the public records accessible to users are not held at the PRO, but are sent to repositories known as Places of Deposit (many of them county or city record offices), which are inspected by the PRO on behalf of the Lord Chancellor.

In the early 1970s, a new building was erected at Kew to house the departmental records of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The records of the medieval and early modern periods remained at Chancery Lane. This split site system was never ideal, not least for readers working in the Early Modern period who might end up shuttling between the two locations. Two decades later, a second building at Kew resolved the matter and the new PRO was born. Early in 1997 the PRO left Chancery Lane for good.

A reading room was maintained in central London where users could consult the returns of the censuses of 1841-91 and related sources, on microfilm. The censuses have always been the most heavily used of the PRO's records, despite the fact that microfilm copies are available in local record offices and libraries for their particular areas. Many people also use the records of births, marriages and deaths, which were formerly kept at the Office for National Statistics at St Catherine's House, around the corner from Chancery Lane. When the lease on St Catherine's House expired, the two organisations teamed up, moving to a single building where each has its own reading room, but where users can move easily between the two. The Family Records Centre (FRC) opened in early 1997. Situated in Islington, it is conveniently close to the London Metropolitan Archive (the former Greater London Record Office) and to the Society of Genealogists. Well over 500 readers a day use the PRO's reading room at the FRC.

With its aim of assisting and promoting the study of the past through the public records, one of the most important tasks of the PRO is choosing the right material to keep. This is done chiefly by directing and supporting government departments and others in their selection of records for permanent preservation. Each year around two kilometres of shelving are filled with newly transferred records. Mostly these are approaching their thirtieth birthday, the date at which nearly all records are released to the public. But even two kilometres represents no more than five per cent of the paperwork created by government in any one year. The process must therefore be highly selective. In July 1997, after the largest consultation exercise the Office has ever mounted, the first, ever acquisition policy for UK public records was published. The policy stipulates that the records selected should document the history of the state and the nation, including its social and economic condition, and the interaction of the citizen with government. In developing an approach to selection, the resource cost of selecting records will be considered in future. The policy will be subject to public review every ten years.

Alongside the development of the acquisition policy has come a radical new approach to the way the PRO works with government departments and public bodies. Until 1997, its role had been to supervise the departments as they selected records for permanent preservation at thirty years. But effective selection depends on making sure that records have been well managed throughout their life; if they no longer exist or are hard to find, they cannot be selected. Now the PRO aims to give clear leadership to the departments in the management of current records from the moment they are created to the time they are either selected for preservation or destroyed.

The challenge now is to adapt the government's records management systems in order to select and preserve electronic records. The planned Freedom of Information legislation requires access to current records and obliges departments to respond to enquiries within twenty days. Good records management will be essential.

There is a real risk that the nation will lose vital historical material through ineffective archiving of electronic records and so there is an urgency to put the right systems in place. Crucial to success is the PRO and the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency's (CCTA) project to develop a common statement of requirements for managing digital records and to identify software systems that conform to those requirements. A rigorous approach to electronic records management will also promote compliance with data protection legislation and will help authorities to meet the demands of freedom of information. The technological approach is also to be reinforced by guidance to public bodies on good records management included in a code issued by the Lord Chancellor -- the minister responsible for public records.

The first electronic records have already arrived at the PRO; they include the Nolan Committee records on standards in public life. The PRO is also responsible for keeping government datasets on such diverse subjects as contaminated land and school leavers' qualifications in the 1970s. For these types of records we have established a partnership with the University of London, which acts as the PRO's agent for this purpose. The University's Computer Centre and its Library deliver the service now known as the National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD). Users can gain access via the Internet to service information, finding aids and the records themselves (

One of the PRO's most delicate balancing acts is to preserve the records while at the same time making them available to everyone who wants to see them. Long-term preservation requires that they are kept securely, stored in the right environmental conditions and handled with care. It also means that, increasingly, the most popular records must be available in copy form only, to help preserve the originals. This can bring gains to remote users, however, as microfilming or microfiching records takes us further along the road of promoting digital access.

In September 1998 the PRO was awarded 2.6 million [pounds sterling] by the Heritage Lottery Fund to continue the programme of microfilming the `burnt series' of First World War soldiers' service records. Damaged by bombs during the Second World War, the records are in too fragile a state to be handled by the public. These documents, as they become available, are proving among the most popular holdings.

The PRO is currently engaged in a programme to make all the catalogues of its records available online. All paper catalogues -- some 8.25 million entries -- have now been converted to electronic form. Version 1 of the catalogue database became available online last summer. Internet Version 2, a fully searchable online catalogue service that meets the highest international standards, is planned for 2001. This will enable readers to order documents before a visit to Kew, or get reproductions of documents online.

The question everyone is asking is `when will you put the documents online?' The first major series of records to be available via the Internet will be the 1901 census returns, which will be released in early January 2002, with images of about 1.5 million pages containing 35 million names. However, images of some documents may already be seen on the website. The online education service, The Learning Curve, contains a growing number of activities or `snapshots' touching on topics covered by the National Curriculum for history, with some topics covered in more depth. Children and teachers thus have access to a carefully thought-out selection of documents. Every secondary school in England and Wales has been sent a pack telling them of the service and inviting them to join in. These are backed up with a wide range of teaching suggestions. For learners of any age The Learning Curve displays some of the PRO's most fascinating documents: Shakespeare's will; Queen Victoria's census return for Buckingham Palace; and the hearth tax return for Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London started.

Since 1992, the PRO has improved its services tot the public, and this has included extending and refurbishing the reading rooms and increasing opening hours (it is now open six days a week, with late evening openings on Tuesdays and Thursdays). While-you-wait copying is popular; so too is access to the reference library. The PRO has also become much more user-focused in its approach: some excellent innovations have been suggested by readers. The award of a Charter Mark in January 1999 was an encouraging acknowledgement of these improvements.

The Office has also expanded its programme of conferences, seminars and workshops, delivered by experts but open to all interested parties and not just to a specialist audience. Annual open days attract many families. A new education and visitors centre, which opens next month, will enable original documents, including Domesday Book, to be displayed at Kew for the first time. This forms the centrepiece for the PRO's millennium activities, and with a thousand years of history under its roof already, the Office is all set to select, preserve and make accessible the records of the next millennium.

Further details of all the PRO's records, services and activities can be found on the web site:

Anne Crawford is Press and PR Officer at the Public Record Office. the departme
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Title Annotation:United Kingdom
Author:Crawford, Anne
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2000

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