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Public Record Office

The Public Record Office of the United Kingdom is one of the two organisations that make up the National Archives[?] (the other is the Historical Manuscripts Commission[?]). It holds a collection of records of public business in England, Wales and the UK, including the records of court proceedings going back to the middle ages, and the original manuscript of the Domesday Book.

The Public Record Office (PRO) was established in 1838 to reform the keeping of government and court records which were being kept, often in poor conditions, in a variety of places. It was placed under the control of the Master of the Rolls[?], a senior judge whose job had originally included responsibility for keeping the records of the Chancery Court, and was originally located in the Rolls Chapel[?], on Chancery Lane at the boundary of the City of London with Westminster. A purpose built archive was built in 1858 and extended onto the site of the Rolls Chapel, which was demolished as it was structurally unsound, between 1895 and 1902.

The growing size of the archives held by the PRO and by government departments led to the Public Record Act 1958, which established standard procedures for the selection of documents of historical importance to be kept by the PRO. Even so, growing interest in the records produced a need for the Office to expand, and a second building was opened at Kew in south-west London in 1977. The Kew building was expanded in the 1990s and all records were transferred from Chancery Lane to Kew or the Family Records Centre[?] in Islington by 1997. The Chancery Lane building was taken over by King's College, London, which uses it as a library.

In April 2003 the PRO merged with the Historical Manuscripts Commission to form a new body called the National Archives, though the two institutions will keep their separate identities in the short term. The HMC will move from its current site on Chancery Lance to Kew by April 2004. The National Archives should not be confused with the National Archives of Scotland[?], which are run by an entirely separate body.

Most documents held by the PRO are kept "closed", or secret, for 30 years, though in some cases longer terms are imposed for reasons of "national security" or the privacy of people still living. This will change significantly when the UK's Freedom of Information Act comes into force. Individual census returns are kept secret for 100 years; in 2001 the PRO set up a website to allow online access to the records of the 1901 census, and was overwhelmed by the numbers of people wanting to access the site.

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The Australian state of Victoria also calls its archives the Public Record Office.

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