Step-by-step guide for researchers

Archival research can be exciting and rewarding.

Our holdings are not organised by subject like a library. The collection is arranged by the government agencies or individuals who created the records, according to the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System. There is no single subject index or catalogue that lists every item in the collection.

Our step-by-step guide for researchers is a basic outline of how your research might progress.

1. Gather information

Before you delve into our collection, start by collecting basic facts on your person or topic. Undertake background reading and consult secondary sources (eg books, websites) to learn more about your topic and its historical context.

For example, if you are researching a person, try and gather personal documents (eg passports, letters and photographs) that can yield useful details such as:

  • full names, including any middle names, maiden or former names, aliases and alternative spellings
  • date of birth
  • nationality or country of origin
  • date of arrival in Australia
  • any places the person is connected with (eg where they lived, where they arrived in Australia, where they enlisted for war service).

You might like to think about whether the person:

  • interacted in any way with the Australian Government (also known as the federal or Commonwealth government)
  • migrated to Australia in the 20th century, particularly under a government scheme
  • served in the Australian armed forces or in the civilian services
  • could have been subject to government surveillance
  • were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background
  • were naturalised in colonial Victoria or South Australia, or after 1904
  • worked for the Australian government, including for the railways, lighthouses or post offices
  • lived or worked in Australian territories such as Norfolk Island or Papua New Guinea.

For more information:

2. Find out what records we hold

The National Archives was established to collect, preserve and provide access to the records created by the government of the Commonwealth of Australia. The majority of our records date from the Federation of Australia in 1901. We do hold a small number of colonial records created during the pre-Federation period, but the bulk of the earlier records are held by the various State government archives.

You can:

3. Search the collection

RecordSearch is our online collection database, which defines different levels of information about the records we hold. It describes:

  • the agencies and people who created the records
  • the series in which the records are held, and
  • the individual records (or items).

It maps relationships between these agencies, series and items based on the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System.

An easy place to start in RecordSearch is with:

  • a simple keyword search
  • name search
  • photo search
  • passenger arrivals index.

You can find out more in the following fact sheets:

4. Review results and access records

Found records – What next?

Each of the item descriptions displayed in the item list on RecordSearch, will have one of the following access statuses recorded against it: open, open with exception, or not yet examined.

Accessing records that are open or open with exception

If the record you want to see is open, you can:

Accessing records which are not yet examined

If the record you want has not been examined (that is, cleared for public access), you will need to apply for access by either:

The item will be examined and notification of the access decision provided within 90 business days. In some cases the record can’t be cleared for public access or access to certain parts will be withheld. If this is the case, you will be sent a written statement of reasons.

Find out more on:

Access to records not yet in the open access period

The Archives Act does not provide a right of access to records not yet in the open access period. To see these records, you will need to apply direct to the Australian Government agency controlling the records, under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.


Didn’t find what you wanted?

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5. Order copies

We provide online copies of records, consisting of an image of each page of the record and a searchable PDF, made available through our collection database, RecordSearch.

You can identify and order an online copy of a record through RecordSearch. On the Item details screen select 'Request copy' and follow the instructions. Copying charges apply.

Find out more about ordering copies.

6. Ask us a question

Our reference staff can help you to find records in the collection. Reference services are provided free of charge and you can ask us a question online.

If the reference officer identifies records relevant to your inquiry they will let you know.

As we do not undertake lengthy research on your behalf, you may like to employ a research agent.

7. Visit a reading room

If you are planning to undertake extensive research, it may be easier to do so in one of our reading rooms.

Only a small number of the total records are listed individually on RecordSearch. In some cases you may need to search hard copies of item lists which provide similar details to item descriptions on RecordSearch.

Our reading rooms are located in each capital city and they offer facilities, services and specialist reference staff to help with research using our collection.

As archival records are held in special repositories, often off-site, to view original records, you will need to submit a request for issue in advance of your visit. Original records can only be viewed in the reading room of the office where the record is held. We cannot transfer records between offices.

For more information:

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019