Miles of history on the move: Demand is driving the Public Record Office to a new home in Kew. Sally Watts measures the shelves

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MEASURING our progress in mileage can be awe-inspiring. For example, there are 93 miles of shelves at the Public Record Office which hold 908 years of our history, starting with the Domesday Book, the survey of England commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1066 and completed in 1086.

These public records - 'documenting the history of a medieval kingdom, a world-wide empire and an emerging welfare state' - are virtually unbroken from the 11th century to the present, according to The Nation's Memory, an illustrated guide to the PRO.

Yet it was only in 1838 that proper care of the records began. In earlier times retention of papers or parchment tended to be fairly haphazard, with invaluable items often tied in bundles and stuffed into sacks or wooden chests. But the Public Record Office Act in 1838 established the PRO as a central depository for 'all rolls, records, writs, books, proceedings, decrees, bills, warrants, accounts, papers and documents whatsoever, of a public nature, belonging to Her Majesty' as well as those deposited in the Tower of London, the Chapter House at Westminster and other locations. The first purpose-built premises in Chancery Lane, London, were completed in 1868, and the sacks and parcels began arriving from 60 different storehouses. The records industry had begun.

Inevitably, public records and public interest outgrew the fine Victorian building. Government departments had grown and become more pervasive. Population had expanded and, by the 1960s, both family and local history (the latter inspired by the books of the historian WG Hoskins) had become national pursuits. The second purpose-built premises opened at Kew in 1977.

Each building, although separated by more than a century, was a technological and architectural marvel of its day. And today a further edifice for staff and storage - said to be even more remarkable - is being completed at Kew, to open late next year. The Chancery Lane premises will close and its records (35 shelf miles) will move to Kew.

One of the marvels at the new facility is that visitors will be able to use a simple keyboard when ordering documents. These will then be delivered mechanically. A computerised system will transmit the requests to the appropriate floor (there are three storage floors, each covering some 4,700 square metres).

The requested documents will then be carried to the reading rooms by a concealed overhead system, and visitors will be informed of their arrival by an electronic pager linked to their seat number. Larger documents will be transported in trolleys.

Research areas in the splendid establishment at Kew include three reading rooms: the main one, the Langdale, for documents; a microfilm room; and a third room for large documents and maps. An average of 250 to 300 people do research at Kew daily.

Chancery Lane also has three reading or search rooms, including the delightful Round Room, the Long Room and the Rolls Room, mainly for wills and related material.

The PRO (as the record office is known to intimates) employs 460 people. About 40 work in the conservation department, repairing old paper and parchment documents, binding books, and conserving maps, seals and textiles.

Repository assistants search out records requested by visitors and vary this with work in the public rooms. Readers services staff produce the wide range of displayed information papers, giving background material and explaining some of the mysteries of locations.

Friends of the Public Record Office help in indexing large categories of records, such as wills, and members of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies assist with conservation.

Two years ago the PRO became an executive agency in the Next Steps programme, coinciding with the appointment of Sarah Tyacke as Keeper. It now has a management board, a financial management information system and a five-year corporate plan; this includes enhancing reader services. The bookshop has expanded, increasing sales; reprographic sales have also increased - these range from a one-off record to a whole collection: films, photos, Xeroxes.

'As an agency, we will be a bit more focused on defined objectives - more customer-orientated,' said Duncan Chalmers, director of public services. 'It should help us to find out what our readers want, and their views on the quality of service.'

A recent reader survey praised the service, but asked for longer opening hours. As a result, the census room at Chancery Lane, containing the returns for England and Wales from 1841, is now open on Saturdays. It is hoped to extend opening times further.

Census returns are of particular interest to family historians, who make up 60 per cent of visitors, while 20 per cent are academics. Many visitors come from abroad, Mr Chalmers said, including people from overseas who seek out Foreign Office records about their countries, especially on the boundaries of African states.

Other visitors, by contrast, may be interested in the records of the Patent Office or the Industrial Property Department, which show designs and trademarks from the 1840s onwards.

Mr Chalmers said: 'My job is to give readers a good service, to improve our standards of advice and help in locating records that may be of use. We are improving the matching of wanted information with our knowledge of the records.'

The PRO is responsible to the Lord Chancellor. Its current grant is around pounds 25m. The office attracted 170,000 visitors in 1992-3, with up to 800 arriving daily. Chancery Lane has handled the larger share - that is the lure of the census returns.

'The Public Record Office houses the world's finest state archive,' it is stated in The Nation's Memory. 'As well as the formal records of law and government, thousands of parchment rolls and files of registers containing millions of names and facts, there is a whole host of unlikely and exciting items 'secreted' by the great organism of the state - diaries, private letters, photographs, maps, and even recipes.' All are available - to everyone.

'It's the national heritage: our government records go back to the Domesday Book. There are even some Anglo-Saxon charters,' observed Anne Crawford, archivist and medievalist who also arranges visits by schools and other groups and dabbles as copyright officer (handling requests from publications that wish to reproduce documents).

Among the groups of visitors for whom Miss Crawford caters are the 70 or so British and overseas journalists who attend the annual press preview of state records from the Prime Minister's Office, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, which are opened under the 30-year rule.

Some records remain unopened for much longer, usually when security is involved. Census returns are closed for a century. Last year, thanks largely to pressure from the Institute of Contemporary British History, the government agreed to open a stack of state papers that might otherwise have remained secret indefinitely.

Selection of public records for retention is a continuing activity, affecting nearly 150 government and public departments. The staff of Dr Nicholas Cox, director of government services, liaise with the departments, advising on which papers should be kept.

Each year between one and two per cent of the total - more in the case of the main department - arrive at the PRO to be checked, documented and stored - and to add another mile to our records.

The Nation's Memory: A Pictorial Guide to the Public Record Office, edited by Jane Cox. HMSO, pounds 3.50.

(Photograph omitted)