Access and participation

National Archives of Australia and National Archives of Australia Advisory Council Annual Report 2015-16

The Archives provides access to, promotes and interprets the national archival collection. The collection can be accessed online through the Archives’ websites and National Digitisation Service. The Archives also provides access to the collection via the National Reference Service and reading rooms. In addition, the Archives fosters engagement with people to assist them to learn about their heritage and democracy.

The Archives:

  • provides websites, publications, exhibitions, displays and events that allow people to engage with and explore the collection and its impact on the nation’s heritage and democracy
  • provides an education program that introduces students and others to the national archival collection and Australia’s history
  • publishes resources to assist people to research the collection
  • develops marketing and communication programs, including media engagement, to inform people about the Archives and it services.

National Digitisation Service

The Archives’ National Digitisation Service provides online access to the collection by digitising records and making them available on RecordSearch. More than 4.4 per cent of the collection can now be accessed online.

Two major projects to digitise passenger cards were undertaken in 2015–16, resulting in an extra 12,571,606 pages being added to RecordSearch. Access to these passenger cards is in high demand as people require proof of arrival in Australia or passenger arrival information.

A project to replace the microform collection with digital images also commenced in 2015–16. A total of 370,000 images were created, which will be available on RecordSearch in 2016–17.

Table 1: Digitised pages and photographs, 2013–14 to 2015–16 (cumulative)

Item 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16
Digitised pages on RecordSearch 26,384,215 27,855,530 42,132,552
Digitised photographs on PhotoSearch 395,746 406,537 421,297
Total 26,779,961 28,262,067 42,553,849

National Reference Service

Under its National Reference Service, the Archives provides information and guidance – including copies of records – to assist people with their research. During 2015–16 the Archives received 85,292 reference enquiries, with 75 per cent responded to within 30 days.

The Archives has reading rooms in each state and territory where people can view original records. Reading rooms in Adelaide, Darwin, Hobart and Melbourne are shared with state or territory archives or libraries, providing greater integrated services to the public. In 2015–16 some 111,526 records were accessed in reading rooms or via the National Reference Service.

During the reporting period there was heightened interest in World War I service and repatriation records. There also continued to be interest in records relating to post-World War II migration to Australia.

Enhancements were made to the Archives’ website to help people lodge reference enquiries and view records online. The Archives also moved its telephone enquiry service to a message-only service in 2015–16, encouraging greater use of the information and services available on the Archives’ website.

Table 2: Records accessed by the public, 2013–14 to 2015–16

Item 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16
Records viewed online via RecordSearch 14,115,651 13,013,762 10,579,254
Original records viewed in reading rooms 63,296 61,228 38,425
Copies of records provided via the National Reference Service 46,071 44,896 69,248
Total 14,225,018 13,119,886 10,686,927

Table 3: Reference enquiries from the public, 2013–14 to 2015–16

Item 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16
Received via the National Reference Service 66,793 85,331 70,631
Received in person at reading rooms 13,849 9,122 12,360
Total 80,642 94,453 82,991

The Archives also assists Australian Government entities to access records in the collection. In 2015–16 government entities accessed records to support the work of royal commissions and enquiries, litigation and the investigation of historical issues. The Archives responded to 2301 enquiries from entities, and provided access to 15,121 records.

Access examination

The Archives Act provides a general right of access to records in the open access period unless they are exempt under one or more of the 16 exemption categories defined in section 33 of the Act. These categories include national security, defence, international relations, confidential information, and personal, professional and business affairs.

Before a record is released Archives staff identify any information that should be exempt and may refer records to Australian Government entities for advice on sensitivities. The process of identifying exemptions is called ‘access examination’. When exemptions are made all or part of a record may be withheld from public release.

Records are examined in response to a request from a member of the public or as part of the Archives’ program of proactive release. Once examined and released, records are made available through the Archives’ reading rooms or online via RecordSearch. During 2015–16 the Archives released 134,478 records for public access without exemptions. A total of 5528 records, or 4 per cent, were partially or completely exempted from public access.

Between 1 July and 31 December 2015, significant resources were committed to address a backlog of 7813 applications submitted prior to October 2013. During this period, records relating to 1084 applications were released, and the backlog was reduced to 6729 applications. From 31 December, the backlog continued to be reduced.

Table 4: Records released, 2013–14 to 2015–16 (number of records)

Item 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16
The Archives’ access examination program 363,695 387,245 91,171a
Applications from the public 57,058 53,028 48,835
Total 420,753 440,273 140,006
  1. The 2015–16 achievement for the access examination program was significantly lower because there were fewer whole series identified that could be released with minimal examination.

Table 5: Decisions resulting from access examination, 2013–14 to 2015–16 (number of records)

Item 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16
Records wholly released 414,453 429,423 134,478
Records partially released 5,641 9,824 4,759
Records withheld from public access 659 1,026 769

Table 6: Time taken to make decisions on access examination applications from the public – simple access examination, 2013–14 to 2015–16

Item 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16
Within 90 days 36,001 36,753 35,680
More than 90 days 6,650 2,950 1,867

Note: Records requiring simple access examination can be released quickly using streamlined processes.

Table 7: Time taken to make decisions on access examination applications from the public – complex access examination, 2013–14 to 2015–16

Item 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16
Within 90 days 11,532 8,929 9,265
More than 90 days 2,839 4,396 2,023

Note: Records requiring complex access examination generally contain sensitivities relating to national security, defence or international relations. These records may require referral to other entities for expert advice.

Online presence

The Archives reaches its audiences extensively via online activities. During 2015–16 the Archives continued to harness rapid advances in technology and the online environment to improve access to, engagement with and interpretation of the collection.

The Archives’ comprehensive online presence includes its corporate website as well as several specialised websites, blogs and social media such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

During the reporting period Discovering Anzacs, a website developed jointly with Archives New Zealand to commemorate World War I, was upgraded to improve the user experience. Crowdsourced contributions of photographs and stories continue to be made to the website. Major cultural contributions were received from the State Library of Queensland, LINC Tasmania and the Victorian Office of Aboriginal Affairs.

In addition content updates were made to the Archives’ Australian Prime Ministers website. This is a key educational and public research resource on the national and international archival records of Australia’s 29 prime ministers.

A major finding aid to locate and access archival records relating to Australia’s comprehensive post-war reconstruction was published online. The research guide, Land of Opportunity: Australia’s post-war reconstruction, by Graeme Powell with Professor Stuart Macintyre, was also published in hardcopy and launched during the reporting period.


Memory of a Nation, the Archives’ permanent exhibition in its National Office, allows visitors to view some of the treasures from the collection. The Federation Gallery displays a trio of documents that constitute the ‘birth certificates’ of the Australian nation, including the Royal Commission of Assent, Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act and the Letters Patent that established the office of the Governor-General. More than 40,600 people visited Memory of a Nation and the Federation Gallery in 2015–16.

During the reporting period the following exhibitions, visited by 19,034 people, were also on show at the National Office:

  • Without Consent: Australia’s past adoption practices – developed in support of the Australian Government’s national apology to those affected by forced adoption and removal policies and practices. On display 19 March to 19 July 2015. Visitation (1–19 July 2015): 879
  • Life Interrupted: Gallipoli moments – a partnership exhibition with the State Library of New South Wales providing a glimpse of the Gallipoli campaign through the eyes and words of those who were there. On display 1 August to 15 November 2015. Visitation: 4979
  • Magnified: 12 years of the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize – jointly curated by the Archives and the South Australian Museum, this exhibition explored the science behind the winning artworks over the previous 12 years. On display 26 November 2015 to 28 March 2016. Visitation: 8234
  • Tuning In: ABC TV 1964–76 – the first major exhibition to focus solely on the Archives’ audiovisual collection. On display 7 April to 15 May 2016. Visitation: 3337
  • Faith Fashion Fusion: Muslim women’s style in Australia – an exhibition from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney that showcased the work of Muslim designers and entrepreneurs making a mark on the local fashion industry. Visitation (25 May – 30 June 2016): 1605.

In addition the following Archives travelling exhibitions, visited by 75,793 people, continued their national tour:

  • A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories – toured to Sydney, Lavington, Bunbury, Wanneroo and Melbourne, with funding received through the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia. Visitation: 27,896
  • A Ticket to Paradise? – toured to Adelaide, with funding from the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Visions of Australia and National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program. Visitation: 28,332
  • Without Consent: Australia’s past adoption practices – toured to Kalgoorlie and Geraldton, with funding from the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia. Visitation: 19,565.

Cabinet records release

On 1 January 2016, key 1990 and 1991 Cabinet records from the Hawke government were made available for public access by the Archives following a briefing and embargoed release to the media on 4 December 2015. Journalists received a media kit containing contextual information about the Cabinet records and were invited to access, under embargoed conditions, 296 Cabinet records from 1984 and 1985. Former Prime Minister, the Hon Bob Hawke AC and Archives Cabinet historian Dr Nicholas Brown addressed the media briefing and both gave a number of interviews, which were broadcast once the embargo expired on 1 January 2016.

Contextual information about the 1990 and 1991 Cabinet records and digital copies of the proactively released records were made available on the Archives’ website on 1 January 2016.

Media coverage of the release of 1990 and 1991 Cabinet records from 1 January 2016 was extensive and positive. In the first two weeks of January 383 radio reports, 1260 television reports and 125 print articles focused on the Cabinet records. It is estimated that this coverage reached a cumulative audience of more than 32 million people.

During 2015–16 the Archives commenced preparations for the embargoed release of the 1992 and 1993 Cabinet records, which will reach the open access period on 1 January 2017.

Indigenous services

During 2015–16 the Archives continued to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to access records in the collection to help them link up with their families and communities. As part of this, the Archives worked with its Aboriginal advisory groups in the Northern Territory and Victoria, agencies with whom the Archives has memorandums of understanding relating to access, and Indigenous community and student groups who visit the Archives.

The Archives launched a revised edition of Tracking Family: a guide to Aboriginal records relating to the Northern Territory in July 2015. This guide assists Aboriginal people to locate and access records. The Archives and Public Record Office Victoria received an Australian Society of Archivists Mander-Jones Award for the co-publication, walata tyamateetj: a guide to government records about Aboriginal people in Victoria. The guide helps Victorian Aboriginal people find records about their family and country.

During the reporting period the Archives continued its partnership in the Australian National University/Australian Research Council project ‘Serving our country: a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the defence of Australia’. Archives staff also assisted the Australian War Memorial, Western Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Victorian Office of Aboriginal Affairs and South Australian Museum with exhibitions, publications and website content relating to Indigenous defence service.


The Archives contributes in-kind support to the National Archives of Australia/Australian Historical Association postgraduate scholarships. Those awarded during 2015–16 were:

  • Catherine Horne – Modern voices: women’s speech on Australian radio, 1923–1966
  • Fallon Mody – 22 nations, 1 vocation: immigrant European doctors in Australia, 1930–1960
  • Jo Grant – Internationalism and the ‘primitive’ during the 1950s: Julian Huxley's, Arnold Toynbee's and Clyde Kluckhohn’s tours to Aboriginal missions in the Northern Territory
  • Katherine Roscoe – Island chains: the transportation of convicts to islands around colonial Australia, 1788–1901.

Community relations

In each state and territory, the Archives’ consultative forums bring together representatives from various community groups and cultural institutions, historians and genealogists. They allow people to comment and provide feedback on the Archives’ services. Significant issues discussed in 2015–16 included the Archives’ co-location arrangements, the backlog of access examination applications and the construction of the NAPF.

Several volunteer projects were carried out in 2015–16:

  • Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra volunteers undertook work ranging from documenting content information to repackaging records into archival containers. A total of 14,088 item descriptions were added to RecordSearch as a result of the work of the society.
  • As part of a collaborative arrangement with Public Record Office Victoria, volunteers assisted in the delivery of Project Albany.This Melbourne project was undertaken by more than 150 volunteers who contributed approximately 5000 hours. In addition, 35 Monash University students participated in the project and contributed a further 700 hours. The project resulted in 218,921 record pages being added to RecordSearch.
  • As part of a collaborative arrangement with the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, a volunteer project was undertaken that involved the arrangement, description and preservation of Australian Antarctic Division station logs and reports dating from 1947.
  • A Perth Work for the Dole project continued to develop an index of passengers who arrived at, or transited through, the Port of Fremantle and Perth Airport from 1926 to 1978. An additional 673 ships and 140,410 names were added to the index.

Education programs

The Archives implements a range of educational activities and programs. In 2015–16 a total of 8849 students, teachers and university pre-service lecturers visited the Archives’ permanent exhibition, Memory of a Nation, and participated in the education program linked to the Australian Curriculum. At the heart of the program are the foundation documents of the Commonwealth, particularly the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, which contains the Constitution and Royal Commission of Assent signed by Queen Victoria. The foundation documents were highlights at the ACT Schools Constitution Convention for Year 11 students and the National Schools Constitutional Convention for Year 12 students.

During 2015–16 two new programs were developed for Year 9–10 students:

  • The ‘Centenary of Anzacs’ program unlocks World War I service records to deepen students’ understanding of what it was like to go to war. The program is complemented by an educational resource on the Discovering Anzacs website, featuring original war records from Australia and New Zealand.
  • ‘This is Our Land’ connects students with records from the collection revealing the struggle for rights and freedoms for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the 20th century. The program is linked to the school curriculum and supported by the Archives’ online education resources including the Vrroom website and digi books on the ABC Splash website.
  • The Archives continued to sponsor the National History Challenge. In 2015 prizes were awarded at state and national levels to entrants in the ‘Excellence in the use of primary sources from the Archives’ collection’ category.

Service charter standards

The Archives’ performance against access service standards in 2015–16 is outlined below.

Table 8: Performance against Service Charter standards, 2015–16