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Research Guides

Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records


The National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia ensures that full and accurate records documenting Commonwealth Government activities are created and kept. From this massive body of information, the Archives selects, cares for and makes available to all those records of continuing value. This collection constitutes the archives of the Commonwealth Government – a vast and rich resource for the study of Australian history, Australian society and the Australian people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. The main focus of the collection is material which documents Federal Government activities since Federation in 1901. There are also significant holdings of nineteenth-century records which relate to functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth Government at the time of Federation and subsequently. The records described in this guide are a small but significant part of the collection.

Access to the National Archives collection is provided free of charge in public reading rooms located in each capital city. Researchers are assisted by specialist reference staff and are provided with reference tools to help them identify and use the records in the collection. These reference tools include the RecordSearch and PhotoSearch databases,guides, publications and fact sheets. Researchers unable to visit a reading room may seek information and help by telephone, mail, facsimile or email.

RecordSearch and PhotoSearch provide information about agencies, persons and series as well as descriptions of over two million individual records. They are available for online searching in reading rooms located in all offices of the National Archives, at the Australian War Memorial and on the National Archives website.

The National Archives website provides more information about the Archives, its collection and the services it offers. A visit to the site will help you determine whether the Archives holds records relevant to your research. Fact sheets on various topics are also available on the Archives website.

About this Guide

Citizenship in Australia is not a subject with definite boundaries and contents with which a guide such as this can easily engage. The abstract conceptions of citizenship which researchers might bring to this guide will rarely meet with official understandings of citizenship or the relations between state and citizen. The many policies, laws and rights which researchers might regard as constitutive of citizenship were developed ad hoc and in isolation from one another, so there is no well-organised body of records on citizenship in Australia to which this guide can refer the reader.

Instead, the guide is organised thematically around major aspects of citizenship in Australia, with the intent of allowing the reader to seek out whichever part of the guide may assist in their research. The first chapter is about citizenship and nationality generally, and their specific history in Australia. The following three chapters each address important themes in citizenship. Chapter 2 deals with the formal legal definitions of British subject and Australian citizen, and an earlier de facto Australian citizenship which developed from the Commonwealth's administration of immigration and deportation. Naturalisation, citizenship ceremonies, and the promotion of citizenship also figure in this chapter as integral elements of the policy regime by which the Commonwealth explicitly constructed categories of citizenship.

Chapter 3 turns to matters of identity and human difference, since citizenship was always intimately linked to concepts of racial and national identity. The Commonwealth's policies of assimilation are important here, since incorporating newcomers into the Australian citizenry was regarded as a social, cultural and psychological process as much as a temporal and legal one by the government. The Commonwealth's archives legislation allows public access to records more than 30 years old, and the guide is therefore limited to the period up to 1969, and does not extend to the era of multiculturalism which replaced assimilation in the 1970s. Chapter 3 also deals with aliens (or non-citizens), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and women as separate categories which were, in one way or another, excluded from citizenship. Research on these subjects is revealing of the character of citizenship in Australia.

Finally, Chapter 4 is concerned with the substance of citizenship. The guide refers to records on civic rights and obligations, movement and passports, and international instruments on human rights which have affected citizenship in Australia.

Each thematic section of the guide begins with a short discussion of the section's theme. The remainder of the section contains lists of record series, and usually a few sample files from each series. The series are organised by the agency or function which produced them, the most relevant functions listed first. Thus, a thematic section might contain a list in which the series created by the Attorney-General's, External Affairs, and Immigration Departments are listed. The guide's thematic structure means that there is a considerable degree of repetition of agencies and record series through different sections of the guide. To assist with this problem, Appendix 1 is devoted to short descriptions of the major Commonwealth government agencies whose records are described in the guide. For each series full details are given at its first citation and more limited details provided wherever it recurs with a direction to the first citation.

The guide is primarily intended to direct researchers to series relevant to their interests, and while important items are listed, the researcher will need to undertake research specific to their subject. Many of the series listed in the guide have not been fully explored by researchers, meaning that research will be both profitable and exciting.

Description of the records

To fully understand a record it is often helpful to know certain things about it in addition to its contents. For example, it helps to know who created the record, when it was created and what other records exist that deal with the same general subject or issue. This information provides the context of the record, which helps researchers to interpret what the record is really about, determine its relevance, and decide how accurate or complete it might be. The National Archives documents this contextual information for each record in the collection using the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System.

Under the CRS System records are described and controlled as series. A series is made up of items, which are the individual files, volumes, maps, cards, diaries, etc that were received into custody by the Archives from the creating department, agency, or individual. Series usually consist of many items, but can occasionally consist of just a few or even a single item.

When the Archives registers a series it gives it a series number and describes the creating agency, the subject matter of the series, its date range, the format of the individual items making up the series, their quantity (expressed in shelf metres), where they are held and details of related series. An explanatory table below sets out the manner in which the records are described throughout the guide.

2 Canberra

Nearly 700 subject bundles on the war, mostly thin, separated from the late Victorian (B3756) and early Commonwealth (B168) Defence Departments' general correspondence.
Series: A6443
Quantity: 3.54 metres
Recorded by: 1899–1901: Victorian Department of Defence (CA 1340); 1901–11: Department of Defence [I](CA 6)

4 Australian Commonwealth Horse – case of ex Trooper Hodgson, 1904 A6443, 105
5 Compensation for a soldier kicked by his horse while on parade in Sydney.  


  1. This information gives the series title and the date range of the records which make up the series. The series number is shown on the right-hand side.
  2. This shows the location of the series (ie the office of the National Archives where it is held) is also shown.
  3. This gives a brief overview of the contents of the series, the series number, the total volume of records in the series (In some cases only several items within a series will relate to the topic, but in other instances the entire series will be devoted to it), the department or agency which created the series, and the period during which this department or agency was in existence. The 'CA' (Commonwealth Agency) number is a unique identifier allocated by the Archives to each agency. This number can be used to retrieve more information about the agency and the records it created from RecordSearch.
  4. This shows the title given to an item from this series by the creating agency. Sometimes additional information appears in square brackets. This indicates information that has been added by the Archives to clarify the meaning of the title. The dates of the earliest and latest document on the file are also shown. The item’s series number and identifying number appear on the right-hand side. These numbers must be quoted if a copy of the record or access to it is requested.
  5. Where included, this describes the main contents of each item. Note that it does not describe every document on the file. Because of the number of records listed in this guide, contents description has had to be limited. However, where possible, an attempt has been made to describe those items assessed as having special significance.

Individual files can be located electronically by file number or by keyword-in-title searches using the RecordSearch database, which is available in all reading rooms and on the Archives website.

Access to the records

Researchers are welcome to visit the National Archives reading rooms and examine the records described in this guide. Before you visit, please make sure that the record is held by the reading room you plan to visit. There is no equivalent of the inter-library loan system for archives. To safeguard the records, they are not moved between the Archives offices and to see the records you will need to visit the reading room in the city shown as the location of the records.

In addition, given that the reading rooms of some of the Archives offices are separate from the main repository area, it may also be beneficial to pre-order any material you wish to see to ensure that it is ready upon your arrival. The turnaround time for the issue of records in each reading room is given in our Service Charter. To pre-order material please telephone or write to or the reading room listed as holding it. Contact details of all offices of the National Archives are given in Fact Sheet 1.

If you cannot visit a reading room you may arrange for a representative to do so on your behalf (see Fact Sheets 4045, Research Agents), or alternatively you may wish to obtain a photocopy of the record. To obtain a copy you may telephone or write to the relevant reading room. Staff are happy to give photocopy quotes for specific items, but please be sure you have the specific series and item numbers for the records you wish to have copied.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important both when requesting them from the Archives and when referring to them in written or published works. The correct method of citation will not only help staff of the Archives to more readily locate the records you are seeking, but will also help other researchers to find the material you have used if they wish to examine it for themselves.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives is expressed as follows: the name National Archives of Australia followed by a colon, the series numberfollowed by a comma, and then the item number. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: A461, C349/1/8
NAA: A461, C349/1/8

The name National Archives of Australia may be abbreviated to 'NAA' provided the full name has been used in the first citation.

Where to obtain more information

If you are unsure about how to request access to any of the records described in this guide, or if you have any other questions about the records, please contact the reading room in your State or Territory by mail, telephone, facsimile or email. All contact numbers and addresses are given in Fact Sheets 1 and 2.