About Closed Access

Most records created by the Commonwealth Government are available to the public once the content is more than twenty years old. But not all. Before they’re handed over, files undergo a process called ‘access examination’ to make sure there’s nothing in them that should be shielded from the public. If a file is deemed to be full of risky stuff then the access examiners might decide to keep it away from us entirely. These files are given the access status of ‘closed’ in the National Archives of Australia’s online database, RecordSearch.

How is this decision made? The Archives Act 1983 defines which records can be exempted from the twenty year rule. For example, section 33(1)(a) of the Act says that if a file contains information that could cause ‘damage to the security, defence or international relations of the Commonwealth’ it can be withheld from public access. When an access decision is made the date of the decision and the reasons why the file has been closed are added to it’s details in RecordSearch.

Open records in the National Archives are a rich source for historical research. But what can closed records tell us? This project is an attempt to read back from the available metadata to understand how the access system works. What are we allowed to see and why?

BE WARNED! This is a work in progress. It's part of an ongoing research project by Tim Sherratt (@wragge). As a result, this interface is likely to change. That said, pretty much everything should work, so feel free to poke around and see what you can find. Have fun!

Beyond RecordSearch

Metadata describing closed files is available in RecordSearch, but it’s not easy to use. For example, you can’t search for the reason the file was closed or when the decision was made. So, using my trusty screen scraper, I’ve harvested the data from RecordSearch and created a new database and interface. That’s what this site is.

The interface is pretty basic, but you can browse by reason, series, and age, and search for files using a number of different filters. Most of the charts are clickable, so just follow your nose and see where you end up.

At the moment I’m still thinking about the questions I want to ask. I’m still playing around looking for patterns and anomalies. Let me know if you find something odd!

Links & resources

Related articles

More on the access examination process

The National Archives of Australia provides several useful guides that describe how the process is meant to work:

The data

A full dump of all the harvested data will be available shortly. In the meantime here’s:

The code

The harvester code is all Python. This website is built using Flask, Bootstrap, JQuery, and Plotly.