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Research Guides

Near Neighbours: Records on Australia's Relations with Indonesia

Appendix 3: Understanding filing systems

The administrative processes for creating files normally dictate that a file for a specific subject is created after the event, and sometimes well after the event. Unfortunately, this means that much of the early correspondence related to the event will be placed on general files or other loosely related files until a file dedicated to the subject has been raised. Researchers should therefore examine files carefully, looking for clues as to where similar correspondence has been filed both before the file was created and after it was closed.

Because the sentencing process is designed to identify and preserve only records that are of enduring value to the Commonwealth, gaps will appear in records held by the National Archives of Australia.28

Where personal copies of papers were retained, senior executives rarely became involved in filing these papers. They left this mundane task to filing clerks or personal secretaries, who used broad listings of subjects by which to file correspondence. Normally they used simple systems that would, if followed closely, provide an accurate description of the contents of any file. However, not all subjects fit neatly into a filing system. For example, correspondence that should have its own file often ends up in a catch-all general file because it is too much trouble to raise another file to cater for the new information. Files with innocuous titles such as 'Political, General' are often well worth looking at because they can contain a wealth of information which in its own right should have resulted in a separate file, but which is now buried in routine correspondence.

When researchers find a clearly inappropriately or incorrectly titled file, they should notify Archives reference staff. Additional descriptive terms can then be added to the title in RecordSearch to correctly describe the item's contents.

Researchers will always be faced with the challenge of imperfect filing systems and destroyed and missing records. For them the real challenge is to examine the structure of the records in detail. Once they have found a file number of interest, they should examine all similar file numbers in the same series. They should then examine the pattern of distribution of these records and try to find where other copies may have been filed. For example, important policy documents often went through an evolution of working drafts, first and subsequent drafts, and then final drafts. Although the final copy may now be missing, copies of earlier drafts can sometimes be found in the files of other departments or agencies. Researchers must determine which departments and agencies had an interest in a specific matter and extend their search to include record series created by these other stakeholders.

Apart from formal correspondence that is readily pigeon-holed into the relevant files, it is worth noting that many principal policy-makers often kept extensive collections of private correspondence separate from the main filing system. These collections provide valuable insight into policy-making. The correspondence collection kept by a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr (later Lord) Casey is a good example of this.29 Record collections like this fall outside the normal departmental filing system, but nonetheless they can be crucial in understanding the key policy issues of the day. In some cases they contain information that is not included in any formal departmental records. They are well worth examining.


Chapter notes | All notes

28 Sentencing is the process of identifying the disposal class a record belongs to and applying the disposal action specified in the relevant disposal authority. The process is described on the National Archives website.

29 See A10299 which is further described in Chapter 2, 'External Affairs Records'.