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Research Guides

Papua New Guinea Records 1883–1942: Microfilm Collections

Appendix 1: Australian government records for PNG

While it is oversimplifying a complex situation, it is often useful to see the Australian Government as having had a dual role in relation to Papua New Guinea before its independence. Many of the records covered by this guide are in effect those produced by the Australian administration in Papua New Guinea relating to governing Papua New Guinea itself. The Australian Government also dealt with Papua New Guinea almost as it would have treated a foreign country and created many records dealing with aspects of Papua New Guinea as it affected Australia. These other Commonwealth records are those which relate to other normal functions of the Australian government dealing with other countries, such as foreign aid, military and diplomatic ties.

The collection of material held by the National Archives for functions concerning the Australian people, such as social security, would normally include much information including day-to-day administration, particular events and people. Australian Government records relating to other countries such as Papua New Guinea would normally be more likely to be concerned with government policy and programs. However the control exerted by Australia, coupled with the small number of administrative staff working in Papua New Guinea, meant a surprisingly large amount of normal routine administrative work relating to Papua New Guinea was carried out in Australia.

Policy material created by the Australian Government relating to Papua New Guinea, like most policy material, would normally be held by the central office of a Department, rather than a state or regional office. In the case of Papua New Guinea the administrative records tend to be also with the central offices. Both policy and administrative records are mainly held in Melbourne for most Departments before 1927 and, reflecting the move to Canberra, most after 1927 are held in Canberra. The departments most closely involved with Australia's policy towards Papua New Guinea during the period covered by this guide are:

  • Department of External Affairs (I) (CA 7) from 1901 to 1916;
  • Department of Home and Territories (CA 15) from 1916 to 1928;
  • Department of External Affairs (II) (CA 18) from 1921 to 1970;
  • Department of External Territories (I) (CA 42) from 1941 to 1951;
  • Department of Territories (I) (CA 60) from 1951 to 1968; and
  • Territories Branch of the Prime Minister's Department (CA 822) from 1928 to 1941.

Finding records

There is no single centralised collection of, or index to, records within the National Archives. Many of the records in the collection are not clearly identifiable as being about a particular subject. The information can range from record items containing incidental or passing references to a particular subject through to detailed case files about specific subjects. Other information might be contained in records on apparently unrelated subjects and will only be identified by checking the record itself. This is a characteristic of archival records everywhere, and it makes research based on archival sources an analytical and labour intensive process.

Archival research involves the study of unique, original documents. Consequently, the storage areas of the Archives, unlike those of most libraries, may not be browsed by researchers wishing to identify records that might be relevant. This means that researchers are entirely reliant on indexes and guides to locate material of relevance to their research.

The Archives' role is to assist researchers to understand and use the indexes and other reference tools. The Archives does not undertake detailed research on behalf of researchers, nor does it interpret the records.

Finding aids

The databases, fact sheets and guides created and maintained by the Archives to help researchers identify relevant records are called finding aids. These are available to all in our reading rooms.

These guides are invaluable starting points for research, but some of them can be complex documents to use. Researchers interested in very specific inquiries, for example, about their families or a particular army unit, pastoral station or person will not normally find the 'answer' in them.

Access to the records

While the Archives has the leading role in regulating access to records over 30 years old, the Archives does not have power to regulate access to records less than 30 years old. Commonwealth records less than 30 years old are known as 'closed period' records, reflecting the fact that they are closed to public access under the Archives Act. Access to these records may be sought by approaching the agency which created the records (or its successor) direct under the Freedom of Information Act, or by seeking permission from the agency for the discretionary release of the records.

Locating records held by the National Archives

Step 1

Identify the agency which recorded the records you want to examine. A computerised database is available in all reading rooms on which you can search for the agency name and number. With the agency number you can get a list of all record series recorded by this agency. You can get a detailed description of all of these series. Using the series descriptions, identify which series you are interested in and make a note of their series numbers.

Step 2

You must now identify the individual record items you wish to see. Some material may have been previously access examined and be listed on RecordSearch; otherwise you will need to use the contemporary indexes and listings to locate the items you want to see.

Visit, write, fax, email or telephone the Archives in the State or Territory where the records are held. You will need to cite the series numbers you identified in Step 1. You may identify the record items in either of two ways, depending on whether you write, telephone or visit.

If you visit a reading room

  • Ask to see the list of item titles which is available for many series. You can search this list to identify the specific items you wish to see. Take note of their item numbers and their location. Alternatively, you may be able to locate the records you want quickly by searching an electronic list of many item titles using the RecordSearch database. The database permits 'keyword' and other forms of online searching.
  • Using the series numbers you obtained in Step 1 and the item numbers you identified in Step 2, you can lodge a request for access to the records. Depending upon the location of the records and their access status, staff will advise you what will be involved in reaching an access decision on your request and what delay might be involved. Depending on the type of record, it may be possible to reach a decision on your request immediately.
  • Please note that there is no equivalent of the inter-library loan system for archives. The records are held in the State or Territory in which they were created or collected and they are not moved between the Archives' reading rooms. If you wish to see the original records you will need to visit the relevant reading room or arrange for a representative to do so, or purchase a photocopy. Archives staff are happy to give photocopy quotes for specific items upon request.

If you cannot visit a reading room

  • If you cannot visit a reading room you can still obtain assistance to identify the record items you wish to see. Telephone or write to any of the Archives offices listed at the end of this Guide. You will need to have identified which series you are interested in or have a specific subject in mind. Staff will undertake searches of the RecordSearch database for you and will send you at no charge a list of item titles obtained from the database for each series or subject you nominate. This list will show the location of the records and their access status. Once you have identified the specific record items you wish to see you should then telephone or write to the reading room which holds the records and request access. You will need to give us your name and address and the series and item numbers you want. We will then let you know when we have a decision on your request and will tell you how you may examine the records or obtain a copy.

Obtaining copies of records

All offices of the Archives provide a copying service. The copies most frequently provided are photocopies although photographic copies, microform and other copying can be arranged. The Archives' copying fees are set to cover costs only (photocopying costs $1.00 for the first three pages and $0.30 for each subsequent page).

Further information

For more information about the Archives' collection and how to use it contact us at any of the locations listed at Appendix 6. Alternatively, you may like to visit our website at