Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

Rectangular building with horizontal stripes. In between the stripes are the windows.

State Library of Tasmania in Hobart. This photo is undated but it looks like it could have been taken when the building had just finished completion. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania flickr collection.

While in Hobart I have been spending a lot of time in the ‘History Room’ at the State Library. This is where researchers can retrieve items from the state and national archives that are held in Hobart. In my book I want to include stories of soldiers from each state in Australia and also look at their pre-war experiences, hence my Tasmanian research.

As usual I am encountering the problem of records that were never kept at the time or are difficult to find through existing catalogues. I have needed to delve deeply and creatively into various catalogues. I thought that many of you would have encountered similar problems researching your family history, trying to complete assignments etcetera, so I thought I would share a little of what I have learned.

Each archive and library has its own way of organising their catalogues, filing their material and explaining how to find items. Sometimes items or collections may not even be mentioned in electronic catalogues or they may be on card catalogues which have not been transferred onto a computer yet. Other items in the collection may never have been catalogued in the first place because of shortage of staff.

The catalogue on the website of the National Archives of Australia only describes about twenty percent of the items they hold. So how can you find out about the thousands of boxes of archival material that are not mentioned in the electronic catalogue?

Finding aids such as fact sheets can be useful. They can give the context of the collection and a broad overview of it. The National Archives of Australia has over 250 fact sheets which can be searched here. I have just found their Research Guides Website. It is worth having a look at that website as it has guides on such things as the collections held in cities other than Canberra aside from other useful topics.

It is also a very good idea to look up journal articles and books about your topic and see if the author has accessed the collection. End notes are incredibly useful. This can give an indication of the contents of collections and the existence of items that may be useful for your work. Older books and journal articles will give old catalogue numbers. Ask the archivist at the desk to help you translate old catalogue numbers to the ones used now. Old books and journal articles are useful because they can bring to light the possible existence of items that have been forgotten.

Gray pyramid shape in background with hierarchy of green labels

This is a snapshot of how the National Archives of Australia organise their collection in their catalogue

Catalogues often have a hierarchy of itemisation in their catalogues. We know that only twenty percent of the items (the base of the pyramid pictured above) are held by the National Archives, so we need to look higher up, at the series level. A series is a collection such as MT1139/1, First World War munition workers dossiers. This series contains 6347 items.

The cataloguing of collections at the series level is much more complete than the cataloguing at the item level. It can be worth browsing through catalogue entries at the series level to find the collection which may contain items that interest you. The catalogue entry for a series can have a wealth of useful information. It is worth reading it carefully. Read the series note (click on the ‘more’ hyperlink to reveal the entire note). Scroll down the page to the ‘Related series’ section. This is a very useful section that can reveal information in the archives that you had no idea existed.

Courts Martial

Have a look at the series record for A471, Courts-Martial files. This series record reveals a related series of digitised photos of soldiers. This could be a bounty for family historians. Note the warning on this series record stating that not all courts-martial are included in the electronic catalogue.

I have found that even if a court-martial has been digitised, the court-martial record does not appear in a search for a soldier by the general name search facility in the National Archives’ catalogue. I knew of the existence of a particular court-martial through a WWI service record. In the service record I found a pink slip titled ‘Proceedings of Court Martial Held For Trial Of’. It stated that the proceedings were held by the Attorney-General’s Department and gave the file number as well as the date of sentencing. This is a lesson in thinking more broadly about where things may be filed. While courts-martial were conducted by the Army, at the time this was regarded administratively as a cross-agency function with another government department. War records can be filed outside what we would now recognise as the typical defence agencies.

To find this soldier’s court martial record I needed to find the series it belonged to. I read through the relevant Defence fact sheets on the National Archives website until I found the A471 series. Then in Advanced Search I entered the series number I was interested in (A471), the soldier’s surname and the year of the court-martial.

You may not be able to find the item you are looking for, or the series you are interested in may have no items listed in the electronic catalogue. An example of this is the series A14149, ‘Medical case files for World War I veterans and dependents’. In this case you can contact the National Reference Service for further assistance.

Organisations Represented in National Archives of Australia Collections

Another question to ask yourself is whether you are looking in the right archives in the first place. Some things may be in state archives, others in national archives. The general rule of thumb is that government archives services only hold records produced or received by governments. If you want to find the records of churches, companies and other organisations you need to ask that organisation. Given that agencies in the National Archives schema are government departments I thought the higher level in their hierarchy would only have one entry – the Commonwealth Government.

However, in the world of archives and libraries, nothing is so cleanly delineated. I found 114 organisations with records dated between 1910 and 2010 in the National Archives’ database. Here are just some of the organisations represented in the National Archives of Australia with their National Archives organisation number in brackets and the date ranges of the records:

  • Various architects
  • Various engineers
  • the Embroiders’ Guild ACT (CO 1024), 1962-
  • the Government of Japan (CO 1032), 1947-
  • Salvation Army (CO 107), 1865-
  • Optus Networks Proprietary Limited (CO117), 1992-
  • Colony of Singapore (CO 40), 1946-1959
  • Colony of the Straits Settlements (CO 38), 1867-1942
  • Colony of Queensland (CO 3), 1859-1901
  • Province of South Australia (CO 4), 1836-1900
  • Colony of Tasmania (CO 5), 1856-1901
  • Colony of New Zealand (CO 51), 1841-1907
  • National Council of Women of Australia (CO 55), 1889-

Ok, I got distracted. This is fascinating! The Commonwealth Government of Australia did not exist until January 1901, yet the archives include colonial records from before this date. As you can see from the entry for the Embroiders’ Guild, the Commonwealth Government was also the governing body covering the Australian National Territory so the National Archives could include a lot of non-government archives relating to Canberra. I would imagine that the architects, engineers and Optus files would contain material relating to their work with the Commonwealth Government.

I don’t have the time to delve into exactly what the National Archives of Australia holds in relation to these entities but I did have a look at the Straits Settlements agencies. It appears to contain the files relating to Christmas Island. According to the Archives’ note about CO 40, Colony of Singapore, Christmas Island was administered by the Colony of Singapore until the late 1950s. The National Archives have inherited earlier records relating to the history of functions the Commonwealth Government took over.

Librarians and archivists are not just agents of retrieval. It is worth while discussing with them what you are doing as they are the experts in understanding the large collections they are responsible for. If you are researching an area that no-one has covered before (or covered adequately) librarians and archivists at the help desk or on the end of the phone can offer useful ideas about how to search collections that are rarely accessed.

Inadequate descriptions and the number of items not catalogued is not the consequence of poor work practices in collecting institutions.  Archives and libraries are horribly underfunded and have to focus on keeping the doors open rather than itemising each collection. Never get cranky at the person at the desk because work like cataloguing has not been done. Be grateful that staff are available to help researchers.

Thank you to Barry and John from the reading room of the National Archives of Australia in Hobart for a useful discussion which prompted me to write this post.



There is always more to say and find. I have subsequently made the following updates to this post:

  • I have added hyperlinks to the National Archives’ fact sheets and added a couple of sentences about their research guide website.
  • Acknowledgement of the help of National Archive staff which prompted this post.

2 thoughts on “Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. You have just reminded me of a Family History conference I attended where they suggested looking ”sideways” for information on Irish relatives, as so many records were destroyed. I must look into that a bit more…Enjoy your research.


    • “Looking sideways” is a good way of expressing the need for lateral thinking when searching archives.

      Yes, I am enjoying my research. It is rewarding finding scattered details from different sources which together, reveal rich details about lives from the past.


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