Skip to content | Skip to document navigation

Research Guides

Collections in Melbourne: A Guide to Commonwealth Records


Image 1: Collins Street, Melbourne, 1950. Australian National Travel Association (CA 7085).

Image 1: Collins Street, Melbourne, 1950. Australian National Travel Association (CA 7085).
NAA: M914, VICTORIA 6902
Enlarge image - View image gallery

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 National 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 that 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 assistance by telephone, mail, facsimile or email.

RecordSearch and PhotoSearch provide information about agencies, persons and series as well as descriptions of over three million individual items. These databases 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 at

The National Archives' website provides further information about the Archives, its collection and the services it offers. The site contains descriptions of some of the most frequently used records in the collection and includes images of some original documents and photographs. 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

This guide provides a portable and accessible overview to the National Archives' collection in our Melbourne office. Estimated at approximately 54 shelf kilometres, this large collection contains a wealth of diverse records covering the last 150 years and should appeal to a wide range of researchers including family historians and academics.

Most of the records described in the guide were created before 1 January 1971. This is because, under the provisions of the Archives Act 1983, most Commonwealth records only become available for research when they reach 30 years of age.

Structure of the guide

The guide is divided into two chapters.

Chapter 1 gives a brief overview of the collection in the Melbourne office and describes three significant record groups: special format records (maps, film, photographs, posters, plans, drawings and microform), records of genealogical value and personal records.

Chapter 2 is divided into subject areas – eg transport, defence – which reflect the major functions and activities carried out by Commonwealth agencies from Federation to the present day. Each entry consists of a brief administrative history of the government activity and a summary of the records held in the collection in Melbourne which relate to that activity. Additional sources of information and related records held by other institutions are included where relevant.

Using the guide

The information in this guide has largely been compiled from the RecordSearch database. The database describes groups of related record items, known as record series, and the government agencies that created them. In addition, RecordSearch contains details of some individual record items that can be searched by title keyword, by date range and by series number. Researchers should consult this database for more information about a subject area or group of records that is of interest to them but should note that only 10% of the Archives' collection is listed at item level on RecordSearch.

Throughout the guide the unique agency control numbers known as 'CA' (Commonwealth Agency) numbers have been provided for each agency – for example, CA 12 is the Commonwealth Agency number for the Department of the Prime Minister. Also shown are 'CP' (Commonwealth Person) numbers for people whose records are held by the Archives – for example, CP 24 is the CP number for Richard Gardiner Casey. These numbers can be used to retrieve further information from RecordSearch about agencies, persons and their records.

This guide provides an overview of agencies whose records are held in the Melbourne office. Please note that most but not all series created by these agencies are held in Melbourne. For example, of the 156 series recorded by the Department of Supply and Development [I] (CA 33), 142 series are held in the Melbourne office and the remaining 14 series are held in Canberra. Researchers are advised to use RecordSearch to confirm series locations.

To identify the specific records created by the agencies listed in this guide it is best to start with the RecordSearch database. Look for the RecordSearch button on the home page of the National Archives' website The site provides access to an online tutorial and provides detailed information about the database as well how to begin your search. To use RecordSearch most effectively in conjunction with this guide, researchers should search for record series by using the relevant CA (or CP) numbers. This will give you a list of the series the agency/person created and you can find details about the contents of each series by searching using the series numbers. You can also use the database to search for items belonging to a specified series. This process is outlined below.

If, for example, you are interested in researching the establishment of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Reserve in 1865, you might first consult this guide to find out which
government agencies administered the reserve. In Chapter 2, under the heading 'Aboriginal affairs' two agencies are listed. You decide that you want to see whether the Central Board Appointed to Watch Over the Interests of the Aborigines (CA 2012) had a role in administering the reserve. You should use RecordSearch to find items created by this agency that may contain information about your research topic. By using the CA number, you can work through the system of control from agency to series to items. The following steps outline how a researcher would do that search. (Please note that these instructions are designed for use by researchers using remote access to RecordSearch. If you are in one of the Archives' reading rooms, ask the staff to take you though the steps.)

  • Access the RecordSearch search engine via the Internet by selecting the 'RecordSearch' button at
  • For the purposes of this exercise at the 'Login' screen select the 'Search now – as a guest ' button.
  • This will display the basic RecordSearch 'Search' screen. This screen is used to search the database for items, series of records and agencies.
  • Enter the CA number, CA 2012, in the field 'Reference numbers' and select 'Agencies, persons, organisations' in the 'Search' field below it.
  • Go to the bottom of the page and select the 'Search' button. This will display the 'Search Results' screen.
  • Select the 'Display' button on the 'Search results' page. This will display the primary description of agency CA 2012. This page provides basic information about the agency. It also provides hypertext links to detailed notes about the agency and links to related agencies. However, the most important link for identifying specific items is the 'Find series recorded by this agency' button at the bottom of the page.
  • Select the 'Find series recorded by this agency' button. This will display another 'Search results' screen.
  • Select the 'Display' button on the 'Search results' page. This will display a list of series recorded by the agency. 'Series' is a term we use for a group of items (eg files) relating to a subject or task. Each series has a unique number. To find information on Lake Tyers in the 1860s, we would examine the list of series to see if any relate to the research topic. In this case we would identify the series number B356, entitled 'Lake Tyers correspondence files (accumulation date range 1 Jan 1865 – 31 Dec 1968)'.
  • Select the hypertext link 'B356' to reach the basic description of this series. As with the agency description page, this page has links to detailed notes about the series and links to related series. The most important link for continuing our search for specific items is the 'Find items in this series' button.
  • Select the 'Find items in this series' button. This will lead to a search results screen showing that there are 185 items listed on the database for the series B356. (You should note that while all agencies and series are recorded on RecordSearch, not all items have been recorded. In the text below we explain how to check to see which items have been listed electronically.) You could press 'Display' and scroll through all the item titles. However, you can refine your search by entering key words or dates for the items listed.
  • Select the 'Refine this search result' button and enter 1865 in the 'Dates' field.
  • Select the 'Search' button. This will lead to a search results field showing that there are two items in series B356 with contents in the date range 1865.
  • Select the 'Display' button. This will display the two items that relate directly to your research topic.

Access to the records

Once you have located an item in the Archives, you can visit a reading room to view the item or follow the prompts to request a quote for a copy of the record.

Note that not all individual items have been entered into RecordSearch yet. If not all available items for a series are listed on the database, you will need to search the printed item lists. The printed lists for the records described in this guide are available only in our Melbourne reading room.

Once you have identified the records you wish to see, you can examine them in the Melbourne reading room at Level 2, Casselden Place, 2 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. If you are located outside Melbourne, you can write or email to ask for a quote for copying the record. All initial reference requests should be directed to:

National Reference Service
PO Box 7425
Canberra Business Centre ACT 2610

Tel: 1300 886 881
Fax: 1300 886 882

If the items you request have not yet been examined for potential sensitivities it may take a little time to make the record or the photocopy available to you. We will let you know if this is the case, but you can check for yourself by looking for the 'Access Status' field on the item display screen.

Before you visit, we also suggest that you look at our fact sheets and guides which are available in our reading rooms and at our website ( These are a way of understanding the services we provide and making the most of your visit.


No charges apply to the services described above unless copies of records are requested. Copy charges are set out in Fact Sheet 51.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important both when requesting them from the National Archives and when referring to them in written or published works. Using proper citations will not only help Archives' staff to locate records more readily, but will also help other researchers find cited material. The correct form of citation for records held by the Archives is as follows: the name National Archives of Australia followed by a colon, the series number followed by a comma, and then the item number. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: B356, 3

The name National Archives of Australia may be abbreviated to 'NAA' provided the full name has been used in the first citation. National Archives' Fact Sheet 7 provides further information on citing records.