The Public Record Office was the national archives of the United Kingdom. In 2003, it was renamed The National Archives and given a new domain
. Its old domain remained valid, although the user was redirected to the new one. Now however, the Internet Archive
's Wayback Machine is the only place you will find the domain pro.gov.uk
. This was confirmed last month by the press office at Kew.
Perhaps it is silly to be sentimental over the name of an institution which exists for practical rather than aesthetic reasons, but the other changes are more positive.
The new body known as The National Archives is now precisely that. There used to be another branch of the PRO, at Chancery Lane. This has long been integrated into the collections at Kew. Then there was the Family Records Centre at Myddleton Street in Central London; that too was closed and its collections - mainly births, marriages, deaths and the census - relocated. Finally, the Historical Manuscripts Commission which was also located in Central London, was likewise integrated into the collections.
How does this affect users? The most obvious is that now anyone who needs or wants to use the actual hard copy records has to travel to Kew; this may not be entirely to the liking of overseas visitors who could be found in their droves at Myddleton Street; one suspects that most would have stayed in Central London. But Kew is fairly easy to reach for most visitors, and it opens not only all day Saturdays but until 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the really good news?
Computerisation of the catalogue began long before the name change; anyone who has searched the catalogue of any archive or library prior to this - those who are old enough to remember - will realise what a see change this is. Computerisation means it is also possible to order documents in advance, which is another plus.
The really good news though is that it is not simply the catalogue that is now available at the click of a mouse; as with many other archives the world over, the past few years have seen Kew digitising vast swathes of documents.
To take just one example, The Domesday Book
is on view there in a glass case, but now it has its own dedicated website
Most documents held at Kew were 30 years old or more, though some records are closed for longer periods. The 30 year rule has now been reduced to a 20 year rule.
One more example of what can now be found on-line will suffice. Here is the will of the famous chess player and theorist Philipp Stamma
. The one drawback is that it will cost you £3.36 to order. Obviously this is a lot more convenient than travelling to Kew, perhaps from America, but we can only hope that the Internet Archive slogan "Universal access to knowledge" will one day be translated to "Free universal access to knowledge", from all the world's great archives.