Our history

An industrial tin shed, the National Archives Office in Perth 1976
The National Archives office in Perth, 1976

The brief history of the National Archives of Australia below is adapted from Documenting a Nation: Australian Archives – The first fifty years by Hilary Golder, published in 1994. For further information, you can review:

The first steps

In the 1940s, the famous war historian CEW Bean argued that his history of World War I had been hampered by the destruction of early wartime records.

He was among the historians, librarians and political scientists lobbying for material from World War II to be preserved for posterity. A War Archives Committee was established, with Bean as chairman, which produced guidelines for the disposal of war records.

The committee saw its responsibilities as safeguarding the history of both world wars, but also stretching to encompass most government departments – with the date of relevant records beginning in 1901.

In 1946 the War Archives Committee was renamed the Commonwealth Archives Committee. Its role was to oversee the disposal of all past and future records and to coordinate the archival work of the War Memorial and the Commonwealth National Library which had been designated as custodians of government records. Government departments could not dispose of records before consulting one of the authorities which would take material of permanent value into custody.

Australia’s first Archives Officer

In 1944 the Library had appointed Ian Maclean as the first Archives Officer, a move that heralded the beginning of the National Archives. His early work involved reminding government departments that disposal implied evaluation of records and transfer of valuable material into custody. Taking control of destruction would be one of the main problems of the postwar years as temporary agencies wound up.

By 1945 the Library was insisting that ‘the primary object of archives is efficiency in the executive arm of government’. In the postwar era the need to document history carried less weight than the money saved through efficient disposal of records.

The Library’s Archives Division expanded, creating training schemes for departmental records officers. In the 1950s new repositories at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth were added to those in Sydney and Melbourne to cope with the increasing need for storage. By 1952 the Archives Division of the Library had 25 staff and, taking over the archival responsibilities of the War Memorial, became the single archival authority.

The Commonwealth Archives Committee was keen to remind the government that the Division did not exist simply to store records for departments, that archives were one of the nation’s cultural resources. But lack of an access policy meant that every research request had to be referred to the relevant department. The Committee in the meantime was seeking a policy that gave access before 50 years, as in Britain. Because of Australia’s youth as a nation, a 50-year access policy would prevent access to almost all Federal Government records.

Independence and public access

In 1954 Dr TR Schellenberg, from the National Archives in Washington, spent six months in Australia as a Fulbright Scholar. With access to politicians and public servants, he argued for an access period less than 50 years. He also supported the view that archives did not belong within a library.

When the National Library Act came into force in March 1961 the Archives Division got its independence. It became the Commonwealth Archives Office in the Prime Minister’s Department. However it had no real clout.  There was no indication of how it could deal with departments which did not cooperate by transferring valuable records into custody.

In 1966 the Cabinet agreed to a general policy on access, introducing a 50-year rule, with World War I records available earlier. ‘Genuine’ scholars could ask for more liberal access. However the news was not widely circulated as the Archives Office did not have the staff to cope with a sudden rush of applications.

In 1967 the British government adopted a 30-year rule. At the same time, an expansion of tertiary education was increasing the numbers and expectations of people wanting to use Australian government records. In 1970 the Australian government caught up and adopted the 30-year rule, agreeing to release World War II records for ‘important works of scholarship’.

Because records only began to be transferred in the late 1940s, there was still a large backlog. Neither the Commonwealth Archives Office nor the departments had the resources to clear records quickly. Without arrangement and description, records remain impenetrable no matter what access policy is adopted.

Significance lies in context

Archivists are concerned with the interrelation of records; the significance of an individual document lies not only in its content but in its context.

Peter Scott, who joined the Commonwealth Archives Office in 1963, suggested the series should become the basic free-standing element of the system. The implementation of the Commonwealth Records Series (CRS) system began in Canberra in1966, building on the work of senior archivist Dr Keith Penny, who was an expert on the structure of Australian government and the development of its recordkeeping systems. Peter Scott was devising a control system to capture and cope with administrative change as the pace of change began to accelerate.

After years of leased and makeshift premises, the Commonwealth Archives Office argued that purpose-built repositories were the first line of defence for the nation’s heritage. The buildings would have to accommodate a variety of record formats, including film, microfilm, computer, audio and video tape, transferred by organisations as diverse as the Department of Defence and the ABC. The first purpose-built repository was opened at Villawood in Sydney in 1972.

In 1973 WK Lamb, former Dominion Archivist of Canada, was invited to make a review of the Australian archives system. His report stated that the function of a modern archives system was to ‘watch over the care, handling and disposition of the records of the Government from the time that they are created until they are destroyed or selected for permanent preservation’. He insisted that the role of the archives should be recognised and reinforced by legislation.  He also argued that the Commonwealth Archives Office was losing sight of its second function to make its holdings available for research.

A new direction

In 1974 Special Minister of State Lionel Bowen tabled the Lamb report and promised an Archives Act. The Commonwealth Archives Office was renamed the Australian Archives and took on a new direction. In 1975 an historian, Professor RG Neale, was appointed to the upgraded position of the Archives' Director-General. Part of his brief was to promote the use of archival material. He had to sell the whole idea of archives legislation to the public service and also needed to lobby politicians for the 'manpower, machinery and masonry' needed to implement the Lamb report. But a change of government and a recession slowed things down.

The Archives building program was affected, especially as its design requirements had become more exacting and expensive. By the time stage 2 of the Villawood repository was completed in 1975 nearly $6 million had been spent on the building which provided air-conditioned accommodation for all permanent records and low-temperature vaults for film and tape, as well as search and conference rooms. This flagship repository included a studio which revolutionised the Archives' lending service to the ABC, allowing sound recordings to be transmitted back by landline.

The grand vision of a National Archives building in Canberra was sacrificed. Records and staff remained in Nissen huts in Parkes and other inadequate accommodation. During heavy rains in 1976 there was a real possibility that Lake Burley Griffin would overflow and drown the core of Australia’s archives. It was, in Neale's words, 'a national disgrace'. After this, tenders were let for a long-delayed repository at Mitchell and the records were moved there in 1981.

Legislation strengthens the Archives’ powers

The first Freedom of Information and Archives Bills were introduced in the Senate in June 1978. This promised more responsibility for the Australian Archives which often knew more about the origins and relations of agencies, as well as the records they created, than the agencies did themselves.

The disposal and transfer clauses were encouragingly strong. Only the Archives could authorise the disposal and destruction of Commonwealth records. For the first time there were penalties for destroying and altering records. Once records reached the 25-year mark they were to be transferred as soon as possible to the Archives, unless destruction had been agreed. The Archives had overall responsibility for determining which material belonged to the ‘archival resources of the Commonwealth’. These key provisions survived intact in the Archives Act which was finally passed in 1983. It was the question of access that delayed the Bill.

The legislation broadened the definition of government records and affirmed the public’s right to study them. The Act also confirmed the Archives as the main adviser to agencies on keeping, evaluating and disposing of their records. As the public service was decentralised and the Public Service Board abolished, the Archives was the only organisation with the mandate and expertise to set standards for records management.

Further challenges

As agencies automated their records, crucial information was kept in databanks which were ‘unstable’ in the sense that the information was constantly updated and could be manipulated in a variety of ways.  Electronic records raised new issues of preservation and access. How could staff ensure that records remained readable in the long-term when software and hardware were being revolutionised?

As the Archives became better known, the demand for access to records increased. The proclamation of the Archives Act 1983 coincided with the records of the Royal Commission on Espionage (the Petrov commission) coming into the open period. This was one instance where whole series were cleared in advance, because heavy use was anticipated.

The annual release of Cabinet papers was also becoming more of an event, especially once the media were given a sneak preview. The 1956 papers which covered the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution and the diplomatic fallout on Melbourne’s Olympic Games were the first batch to be given this treatment.

The name of the Australian Archives was changed to the National Archives of Australia in 1998. The organisation has continued to maintain reading rooms in every state and territory and now also has a website which enables researchers to search the collection from far and wide.

The Archives has also devoted more resources to helping record users and, in 2001, introduced ‘digitisation on demand’ whereby users could request copies of selected records be loaded onto the Archives online database, RecordSearch.

When the Archives (Amendment) Act 2008 was passed, the open access period for most records in the National Archives collection was reduced to 20 years. This move is to be phased in over a period of 10 years.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019