Our history

Our history shows that today's data becomes tomorrow's cultural heritage.

How the National Archives began

During World War II, historian CEW Bean saw that early World War I records were missing. Along with other historians, he asked the Australian Government to preserve war records so people would remember the stories and events that have shaped our nation.

Bean chaired the War Archives Committee, which created our country's first guidelines for preserving and disposing of war records.

In 1944, Ian Maclean became Australia's first Archives Officer. He set standards for handling government records, but realised he needed to show public servants why preserving them mattered. This proved to be a challenge as government agencies were being cut and reshaped in the post-war era.

A valuable cultural resource

In the 1950s, the National Library held all records, which were housed around Australia to cope with storage demand. The team expanded and ran training programs for government staff who managed records.

When the team took over the War Memorial's archives, they became the authority for record keeping in Australia.

Later, historians made the case that archives should not be housed in a library. In 1961, when the National Library Act came into force, we gained our independence. The Commonwealth Archives Office was born. Later, we would be renamed The National Archives of Australia, to reflect the full scope of our work.

Opening access to the records

In our early days, historians and even our staff were unable to access the records. This was a problem: why preserve records if they could not be used for research?

The Commonwealth Archives Committee put the case to the Australian Government that the archives were not just records; they were valuable cultural resources. The Australian Government soon saw that better storage and formal guidelines were needed to give better access to staff and researchers.

Securing our collection

While the first purpose-built repository opened in Sydney in 1972, the plan to open a National Archives building in Canberra stalled. Storing records was costly and budgets were tight.

When a 1976 flood at Lake Burley Griffin nearly wiped out the bulk of the archives, historians demanded action. In 1981, the first National Archives building opened in Mitchell.

Access for all

Over time, we have opened up access to the archives. When the National Archives of Australia first gave limited access to the records, only a select few had access and only to records from 50 years before.

In time, the limit on access was reduced to 30 years and now, you can access many of our records from 20 years ago, with more records becoming available every week.

In 1983, the Archives Act opened the door for anyone to request access to the National Archives of Australia's records.

If you want to explore your family history or write a book drawing upon records from the past, ask us for help. We're here to guide you through the collection.

You can read our full history in Hilary Golder's book, Documenting a nation: Australian Archives – the first fifty years.

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