Preservation of the records
Volume 37, Number 9, October 1999
ANYONE who undertakes research either at the Public Record Office or at any other record office, or even the local library, will be immediately aware of the fragility of the historical material. Obviously this does not apply only to military documents: as the years go by all documents originally made of paper are gradually disintegrating, and very little can be done to prevent this. Many organisations are trying to preserve the content of original documents by recording the text on microfilm; for example the Public Record Office has been undertaking a programme of microfilming the "popular" series. For medal collectors this includes many of the documents that we want to access: the World War I soldiers records in the series WO 364 and 363, the first tranche of the WO 97 Chelsea pension series (discharges up to 1854), the army medal rolls in WO 100, naval officers' service records in ADM 196, naval medal rolls in ADM 171, RFC and RAF officers records in AIR 76 recommendations for World War II army gallantry awards in WO 373 and many others. Additionally the much used indexes to other series have also been filmed: these include sailors' service records in ADM 29, ADM 139 and ADM188, World War I officers' records in WO 338 and, of course, the Medal Index cards for World War I soldiers. This is all very well as long as the documents are filmed to optimum standards so that the information recorded is legible. This is, unfortunately, not always the case. Some of the reproduction at the PRO is appalling: for example, whole sections of the WO 100 series for the Crimean War are illegible, because the original paper was blue, and no allowance was made for this when the pages were filmed. Also these medal rolls were bound in books with some of the data, like the regimental number, in the margins, and this has been lost in the filming as the books were not unbound. One asks oneself What is the point of storing defective records like this. However, large numbers of documents are still in paper form: World War I war diaries in WO 95, muster rolls in WO 12 and 16, the bulk of the IVO 97 records, London Gazettes, Royal Marines' and Royal Naval records in ADM 159 and 188, RAF other ranks' service records in AIR 79, and hundreds of other "historical" classes like ADM I and AIR I and 2. All these documents need to be treated carefully if they are to survive for longer than a few more years, yet I am constantly horrified to see some readers handling these records as though they were yesterday's newspapers. Those of us who use the documents professionally, and therefore rely on them, understand and appreciate the need to conserve the material, but I am afraid to say that not everyone takes the same view. Some years ago unscrupulous people were in the habit of stealing documents, but effectively destroying records by careless handling is equally deplorable, and we should all be aware of the consequences.
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