Public Records Office needs central location

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 1993, 12:00am

I SPENT some time recently at the Public Records Office searching, with only partial success, for records and maps of around the 1890s about the history of trees in Happy Valley. The occasion proved for me the cause against banishing the records office to Tuen Mun.

The material which the Government is intent on combining in one single document store, is in reality a goulash. Departmental files, old building records, public works drawings, thousands of official reports: all accretions of the paper factory which it daren't, or by law cannot, throw away, would be keeping unhappy company with a small quantity of genuine historical archives.

Lumping it all together in a flatted factory in a remote and insalubrious quarter of Tuen Mun may suit the Government's convenience: certainly not that of the average user of the records office. Nor does it follow the example of other more experienced governments in conserving public records. In Britain records are classified according to age and historic value and their storage located accordingly. There, the Public Records Office is located at Kew; while what are called ''intermediate'' records are located at various places outside London. The mass of such documents anywhere belongs to a warehouse, while historical archives are material which properly belongs to a very specialist reference library.

The Public Records Office, however, houses a good deal of material which in Britain would be either at a university or the British Library. This is particularly the case with private bequests. The PRO serves an even wider function therefore than its British counterpart.

The official justifications, as regards the archives, are fatuous; and the belated suggestion for a centrally located ''reading room'' is a sure indicator that none of the officials involved have ever consulted an archive, or tried to do research at the Public Records Office, or anywhere else.

My recent visit was instructive. Research requires a personal search. Delegation can never be satisfactory, and if the PRO had been at Tuen Mun I would never have had the time for that task.

The Government seems determined to go ahead with its Tuen Mun plan even though almost everyone who actually uses the Public Records Office has protested. At an in-house meeting the whole of Legco present voted against the move, and demanded that alternative centrally located premises be investigated. My vote is for the French Mission, across Battery Path from St John's Cathedral. It is big enough.

Already some of those people whose archives are held in trust have written to the Governor saying that if the PRO goes to Tuen Mun, their archives will be withdrawn. A well publicised list of these bodies is now urgent. A list of the private deposits is available at the search room in the Records Office. It includes the Royal Asiatic Society and the Helena May Institute (photographic collections), the Sino-British Club (antecedent of the Sino-British Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and Studio One),the Hong Kong Horticultural Society, Matilda Hospital (the 1929-39 annual reports), St Stephen's College, the Diocesan Boys' School, the Anglican Diocese, and St John's Cathedral. There are some 20 or 30 personal records including diaries covering the World War II period. There is also a particularly fine collection of maps, including original works.

The Diocesan records are numerous and are of unique value to Hong Kong. They go back to the time of the Church in Macau. The St John's Cathedral records are among the most frequently consulted, often by individuals searching for records of the birth, marriage or death of ancestors, and sometimes, for urgent personal reasons, to prove nationality, or even official existence. What should be kept in an urban archives office should surely include all the official records retained after 30 years, all private bequests, all the government official reports, all the map collection, and all the research material already accumulated.

Historical documents are the only defence against the rewriting of history. As 1997 approaches the revision of Hong Kong's history looms. The Government's motives in this are obscure, but if there is enough publicity it might be shamed into reversing an obviously ill considered policy.