Closed Access: Changes in 2016

My plan is to take an annual snapshot of files in the National Archives of Australia that have an access status of ‘closed’. This will allow me to look at changes over time.

The first harvest was in January 2016. You can explore the results using this interface and download the complete dataset.

The second harvest was January 2017. I haven’t added it to the interface yet. Indeed, I’m only writing up some notes about it now on New Year’s Eve 2017 so that I’m ready for the 2018 update tomorrow! You can download a dataset of files closed in 2016.

The good news or the bad news?

The good news is that the total number of closed files decreased significantly in 2016, down from 14,360 in 2015 to 10,751. That’s a decrease of 3,619 – about 25%! Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that three thousand more files are suddenly available to the public. Let’s compare the total number of closed files in 2015 and 2016 in a bit more detail.

Here’s a breakdown of the number of files per ‘reason’. The reasons are cited in RecordSearch to explain why the file is closed. In many cases, these reasons refer to specific exemptions defined under the Archives Act – 33(1)(a), for example relates to national security, while 33(1)(g) concerns privacy.


You can see that the number of files hasn’t changed much, with two major exceptions – ‘Closed period’, and ‘Pre access recorder’. We can make this clearer by looking at the numbers of files added or removed under each reason.


And here’s the net result.


The number of files citing ‘Pre access recorder’ dropped from 2,812 to just 2. This will come as no surprise if you’ve been following along, as the National Archives told me in April 2016 that ‘to reduce confusion with these records we have changed all of these entries to Not Yet Examined’. But it seems that they did the same for ‘Closed period’. We can check this by looking at the current access status for files that previously cited ‘Closed period’.

Current access status of files that cited ‘Closed period’ in 2015 Total
Open 171
Open with exception 15
Closed 5
Not yet examined 2,335
Missing 21

Yep, most of them now have the access status of ‘Not yet examined’.

It’s important to note that these files aren’t any more ‘open’ than they were before. If you want to see them they’ll still have to go through the access examination process, and may end up being closed once again – though given the age of these files that seems unlikely. It’s a change in labelling, rather than an increase in access.

The final score

So how many ‘closed’ files were opened in 2016? Let’s have a look at the current access status of files that were in my 2015 snapshot, but dropped out in 2016.

Current access status of files that changed from 2015 Total
Open 396
Open with exception 232
Closed 12
Not yet examined 4,767
Missing 816

So 628 files were opened in part or in full in 2016. On the other hand, 2,536 new files were examined and closed in 2016 – making a net ‘increase’ of 1,908. So it seems we went backwards.

You might be wondering about the ‘Missing’ category. To find the current access status for previously closed files, I looked up their barcodes in RecordSearch. If there was no record for that barcode, I labelled the file as missing. There are many reasons why barcodes might disappear from RecordSearch – as I discovered when I was investigating missing ASIO files. I need to explore this further to see what’s going on.

Which files?

Detailed analysis will have to wait until I put all of this data into my Closed Access interface, but you might be wondering which series the newly closed files come from.


Series K60 contains repatriation files. The majority of these are closed under the privacy exception (33(1)(g)). Series A1838 is a DFAT policy series. The majority of these files are ‘Withheld pending adv’ – which means that they’ve been sent off to DFAT for advice before a final decision is made. I’ll make some further observations about the ‘Withheld pending adv’ category in my notes on 2017 (coming soon!).

Just for fun, let’s take the titles of all the A1838 files closed in 2016 and feed the file titles to Voyant.