Getting started with your research

Researching at the National Archives can be exciting and rewarding.

We do not organise our holdings by subject like a library or list every item in a single subject index or catalogue.

Instead, you can look for items by searching for the government agencies and people who created them.

This page gives a basic outline on how to research at the National Archives.

1. Gather information

Collect basic facts on your chosen person or topic.

Read background material and look at other sources such as books and websites. This will help you learn more about your topic and its historical context.

For example, if you are researching a person, gather personal papers such as birth, death and marriage certificates, passports, letters and photographs that provide useful details.

Look for names:

  • full names
  • middle names
  • maiden or former names
  • aliases
  • different spellings

Look for details of their birth and origin:

  • place and date of birth
  • nationality or country of origin
  • date arrived in Australia

Look for places the person is connected with:

  • where they lived
  • where they arrived in Australia
  • where they enlisted for war service

Look for places where the person worked and lived, such as if they:

  • lived or worked in Australian territories such as Norfolk Island or Papua New Guinea
  • served in the Australian armed forces or in the civilian services

We only hold records of people who have interacted with the Australian Government. You might also look at if the person:

  • was under government surveillance
  • migrated to Australia in the 20th century, particularly under a government scheme
  • had an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background
  • was naturalised in colonial Victoria or South Australia, or after 1904
  • worked for the Australian Government, including for the railways, lighthouses or post offices

More information:

2. Find out what records we hold

The National Archives was established to collect, preserve and provide access to Australian Government records.

Most records date from the Australian Federation in 1901.

We hold some colonial records from the pre-Federation period, but state government archives hold most earlier records.

You can:

3. Search the collection

Our online collection database RecordSearch provides information about the records we hold.

It describes:

  • the agencies and people who created the records
  • the series in which the records are held
  • the individual records

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:

4. Review results and access records

Once you have found what you are looking for, your RecordSearch item list will display an item description that shows an item's status. This will be either:

  • open
  • open with exception
  • not yet examined, or
  • closed

If a record is closed or open with exception, you can ask the National Archives to review this decision.

Accessing records that are open or open with exception

If the record you want is open, or open with exception, you can:

Accessing records which are not yet examined

If we haven't examined the record you want, you will need to apply for access. To do this:

We will examine the item and notify you about access within 90 business days.

In some cases, we cannot clear the record for public access or may need to withhold certain parts. If this is the case, we will let you know in writing.

Find out more about how we provide access to original records.

Access to records not yet in the open access period

You can only access records that are in the open access period under the Archives Act. To see more recent records, you will need to apply direct to the Australian Government agency controlling the records, under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

Cite records correctly

References to archival records differ from references to books or other types of published material. Learn how to cite archival records correctly in different contexts.

Didn’t find what you wanted?

Visit the ask us a question page to request a record, follow up on a question you've already asked, ask a question in relation to a specific study area or topic or give feedback.

5. Order copies

We provide online copies of records via RecordSearch. These include an image of each page of the record.

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.

Any copies you purchase are for your personal use. Copyright permission must be sought for further reproduction or publication. 

6. Ask us a question

Our reference staff can help you find records in the collection.

We provide reference services for free and you can ask us a question online.

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

We do not do lengthy research on your behalf. You can employ a research agent if you need help.

7. Visit a research centre

If you are doing a lot of research, it might be easier to do so in a research centre.

While RecordSearch lists millions of individual records and new records are added each week, not all of our collection is listed individually. If you cannot find the records you are looking for, you can get further help from our expert staff in our research centres.

You can find research centres in each capital city. They include facilities, services and specialist reference staff who help you learn how to research the collection.

Most of our archival records are held in special repositories off-site. To view original records, submit a request to view records at least 5 days before your visit.

Original records can only be viewed in the research centre for the office where the record is held. We cannot transfer original records between offices.

If you can’t visit a research centre yourself, you can hire a research agent to do research for you.

See the Visit us page for addresses and opening hours.

Visit the Research centres page for information about:

  • research centre rules and etiquette
  • viewing records
  • computer resources
  • using cameras in the research centre
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