The precursor to the Norfolk Record Office was the Norwich Public Library. Although the Library was run by the City of Norwich it had accepted deposits and donations of records relating to the whole of Norfolk since at least the 1930s, including documents collected by the Norfolk Record Society. Those manuscripts which would not fit into the only strongroom were stored in boxes on the tops of shelves holding the Library's book-stock or in the basement 'dungeon' in which there was not enough space to stand upright. The Norwich City records in the nearby Castle muniment room were also administered by the Library. In 1955, Jean Kennedy was the first archivist with a diploma in archive administration to be appointed in Norfolk.
A move to premises in a newly built Norwich Central Library began in 1962 and heralded a major change in status on 1 January 1963 to a joint Norfolk and Norwich Record Office, which Jean Kennedy headed as City and County Archivist. The Librarian's active interest in archives had ensured favourable treatment for them within the Library service, but his ideas did not always correspond with those of a professional archivist. One consequence of this was that the archivist was only able to influence the later stages of planning the new building. Crucially, however, she was able to ensure that the accommodation for the Record Office formed a single unit.
The records moved into the new basement strongroom included the manuscripts from the old library, Norwich City records from the Castle muniment room, and Quarter Sessions and other records transferred from the offices of Norfolk County Council. The county records at Council offices in Thorpe Road included some private estate records deposited by the Essex Record Office, which had refused to recognise that Norfolk then had no county record office.
The Norfolk and Norwich Record Office was administered by the City of Norwich, but funded jointly by the City and County Councils, their respective contributions being determined on the basis of the proportion of records relating to each, with the caveat that all the manuscripts acquired by the library before 1963 were regarded as belonging to the City.
The joint agreement was extended to include the Borough of Great Yarmouth in 1969, and at about the same time the Record Office achieved recognition as the Diocesan record Office for Norwich.
The Record Office also negotiated an agreement with the Dean and Chapter of Norwich for the administration of the Cathedral archives, paving the way for their transfer to the Record Office in 1975. By this time local government reorganisation in 1974 had seen a transfer of administration of the Norfolk Record Office (as it then became) from the City to the County Council, and the membership of the joint Records Committee was extended to include representatives of all the District Councils.
The Record Office acquired some additional strongroom accommodation at the old Shirehall and a separate microform searchroom was also opened there in 1991. When the Central Library was devastated by fire on 1 August 1994 the Shirehall searchroom remained open, providing the focus for a curtailed public service throughout the period of recovery from the disaster, including two major moves. The records rescued from the basement strongroom were transferred to a temporary store within ten days of the fire; from there they were moved a year later to adapted premises at Gildengate House, where the Record Office re-opened only 15 months after the fire. At the same time, discussions were taking place which led to plans for a new Norfolk Record Office and East Anglian Studies Centre at the University of East Anglia, for which a joint County Council and University bid for Heritage Lottery funding was submitted at the end of January 1997, but rejected in November 1997. Jean Kennedy retired as the first County Archivist of Norfolk at the end of March 1997 and was replaced by Dr John Alban.
A new joint bid for Heritage Lottery support was submitted in October 1998 and in December 2000, the Trustees agreed to the award of a grant of up to £4,186,000 towards the construction and fitting out of a new Archive Centre adjacent to County Hall in Norwich.
The Archive Centre opened to the public in November 2003 and was officially opened by the Queen on 5 February 2004. As well as being home to the Norfolk Record Office, it also houses the East Anglian Film Archive (the regional moving images archive for the six counties of the East of England) and the Norfolk Sound Archive (which is part of the Norfolk Record Office and responsible for collections of recorded sound within Norfolk). Since opening, The Archive Centre has received many accolades and has been described as one of the most modern archive buildings in Europe. Its facilities have enabled the Record Office to develop services, including an exhibitions programme based within its purpose-built exhibitions gallery ('the Long Gallery') and programmes of education and outreach, delivered both within The Archive Centre itself and across the county.
The Norfolk Record Office is rated as a four-star (the highest level) archive service under The National Archives' (TNA) self-assessment programme. It also holds the status of being a TNA-approved repository under TNA's new inspection régime, and is designated as a place of deposit for tithe and manorial documents, and as a place of deposit for public records. Approval by TNA under its scheme of accreditation indicates not only that they are satisfied that the Record Office meets their rigorous Standard, but also that it has in place a satisfactory long-term strategy to care for, and make available, the archives in its charge.
In 2005, the Norfolk Record Office became the first county record office to have all its collections Designated as being of outstanding importance by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.
The NRO is a joint service provided by the County and District Councils of Norfolk.