Documenting Australian Society


Nationwide holdings of documentary heritage that are inclusive and representative of the wide diversity of Australian experience and endeavor, past and present.


To enable this vision, we will foster an ecosystem of research, planning and coordination that supports documentary heritage programs, practitioners and communities of practice, and that engages broadly across Australian society.

The Documenting Australian Society Initiative aims to enhance coordination among distributed efforts to preserve and provide access to documentary heritage in Australia. Our vision is to enable nationwide holdings of documentary heritage that are inclusive and representative of the wide diversity of Australian experience and endeavors, past and present. In particular, we are interested in identifying and addressing gaps and silences in our national holdings of documentary heritage to ensure that current and future generations have access to evidence of distinctive aspects of Australian life that reflect the rich diversity and complexity of Australian society.
In 2018, the inaugural Documenting Australian Society Summit resulted in the Canberra Declaration: Towards a Representative National Estate of Documentary Heritage.  
Documenting Australian Society initiatives are undertaken in the spirit of the Canberra Declaration and seek to address ‘big picture’ issues through practical actions that will benefit the Australian documentary heritage ecosystem. Actions might include promoting innovative approaches to maintenance and access, and organising national fora on contemporary issues.  
In 2020, we convened the Documenting COVID-19 in Australia Virtual Symposium in partnership with the National Archives of Australia. Presentations from the symposium are available to view here.

In 2022, we convened a second symposium, Honouring Stories of Struggle: Reassessaing Australian Records of Disadvantage, in partnership with The National Archives of Australia and The Australian Society of Archivists. Presentations from the symposium can be viewed here: Session One and Session Two.
Members of the Steering Committee are considering future initiatives in the following areas:

  • Greater engagement with First Nations archives and supporting improvements in the management of First Nations documentary cultural heritage, potentially including support for access on-country.
  • Engagement with gender-diverse and other significant archives that may be under-represented, represent collection gaps, or be at risk.
  • Providing a forum to explore innovative and sustainable partnership between private, community-owned and publicly-funded collecting organisations.
  • Opportunities to contribute to raising awareness of Australia's distributed holdings of documentary heritage as a strategic national asset and better measuring the value of documentary heritage collections; for their communities of users and the nation.
  • Testing the appetite among collecting institutions for an “Australian documentary heritage ecosystem” to provide a framework for promoting awareness and access, and strengthening the cohesion of that ecosystem.
  • Exploring ways to support and learn from existing and future communities of practice.

If you would like to register your interest in participating in our future events please provide your details on our contact form.

Past Events

Documenting Australian Society Summit - Canberra 2018

On 4 December 2018 the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee will host a summit in Canberra to examine one of the most challenging cultural heritage issues facing Australia today ‒ achieving and implementing a unified vision for documenting Australian society.

The aim of the summit is to address a deficit that has changed very little since Professor Sue McKemmish wrote 17 years ago that "there is as yet no coherent, collaborative, nationally coordinated, encompassing fourth dimension collection policy framework for the whole of Australian society”.

More information on documenting Australian society, previous efforts that have been made to achieve this, and why it remains a fundamental challenge is available in the Summit's background paper.

This by-invitation one-day event is being held under the auspices of the Committee's parent organisation, the Australian National Commission for UNESCO, and has received strong sponsorship and endorsement from the National Archives of Australia as well as support from the Australian Society of Archivists and its venue host, the Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Delegates will include members of the Australian Memory of the World National Committee, and representatives from the Commonwealth's arts portfolio, key cultural heritage sectors, peak bodies and professions. There will also be two international experts, Laura Millar (Canada) and Mark Crookston (New Zealand); and invited speakers who will cover the documentation of broad societal themes such as science and technology, communities such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and formats such as audiovisual archives. A former National Library Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich AM, will be moderator for the day.

It is anticipated that concrete recommendations will result, including support for a declaration to complement the 2012 UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration relating to the preservation of digital heritage. Initial outcomes from the summit will be available on this site in early 2019. For more information, contact Dr Ros Russell at

Sue McKemmish, "Placing Records Continuum Theory and Practice", Archival Science, no 1, 2001, p. 351.





Text of the Canberra Declaration: Towards a Representative National Estate of Documentary Heritage

Under the auspices of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Program, representatives of key sectors, professional groups, institutions and community stakeholders held a summit meeting in Canberra in December 2018 to discuss how to improve and better coordinate the identification and preservation of the distributed national holdings of documentary heritage materials for the benefit of current and future generations of Australians. The following resolutions were passed at the summit meeting.

The summit meeting:

1. Asserted that ongoing preservation of and access to documentary heritage in all its forms is vital to sustain and enhance civil society, cultural memory, social cohesion and a healthy democracy in Australia. Fostering the documentary component of our national memory is essential if Australians are to be able to understand, debate, explain and account for ourselves.

2. Recognised valuable ongoing efforts across a range of sectors, programs and communities involved in preserving Australia's documentary heritage and the need to leverage these efforts through enhanced strategic collaboration.

3. Noted that a vast quantity of documentary evidence of life in Australia is produced every day and that it is only possible to consciously and effectively preserve a tiny proportion of this documentation to help future generations understand the history of life in this country. It is therefore essential for those organisations and programs that preserve documentary heritage to work together try to ensure that what is kept reflects the significant, unique and distinctive aspects of life in Australia, in all its diversity.

4. Asserted the importance of the notion that there is a 'distributed national collection' of documentary heritage, whereby thousands of organisations, institutions, individuals and initiatives across the country contribute to the totality by taking responsibility for particular components of the national documentary estate. These include archives, libraries, museums, community organisations, oral history programs, universities, personal and family collections, and private companies and associations.

5. Noted that many documentary preservation programs and institutions are suffering from budgets that are shrinking in real, if not absolute, terms and that hard decisions need to be made about acquisition and preservation priorities. The meeting further notes that, when making these hard decisions, individual programs should take account of both the work of other related acquisition and preservation programs and an agreed national framework of priorities. 

6. Asserted the importance of involving the entire Australian community, beginning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in the processes and decision-making in relation to building and sustaining the distributed national holdings of documentary heritage. By March 2019 Summit participants will identify key issues, communities, groups to be targeted for further discussions.

7. Resolved to pursue collaborative research, and the necessary funding to support such research, to improve our knowledge of current strengths, gaps and weaknesses in the existing distributed national holdings; together with useful models and strategies for improving those holdings. This will include engaging with universities to develop one or more research proposals to adapt and/or update appropriate reference frameworks for documenting Australia.

8. Resolved that the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee is the logical entity to exercise ongoing oversight of coordinated effort and national machinery in this area and that the Committee should work with GLAM Peak to maximise the involvement of documentary heritage programs and practitioners across the country.

9. Calls on the Australian Government, as a member of UNESCO, and other Australian governments through the Meeting of Cultural Ministers, to support the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of and Access to Documentary Heritage including in Digital Form and acknowledge the key responsibility that government has to properly fund and support collective efforts to coordinate and preserve Australia’s distributed national holdings of documentary heritage.

10. Calls on the National Archives of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, exercising their legislative mandates, to pursue joint and inclusive leadership processes for a national system for documentary heritage preservation.

11. Resolved that the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee should develop a collaborative plan of action for documenting Australian society by June 2019. Key pieces of work that need to be pursued within this plan of action include:

  • identifying a suitable schemata/framework for mapping and planning the potential Australian documentary heritage universe.
  • comprehensively surveying the existing state of Australia's documentary heritage holdings to identify strengths, overlaps, weaknesses and gaps.
  • working with the Australian community to identify priority aspects of life in Australia that deserve special attention for documentary heritage preservation.
  • identifying programs, organisations or initiatives that will take carriage of addressing gaps in Australia's documentary heritage holdings.
  • liaising with governments, universities and others to raise awareness of the importance of documenting Australian society and to pursue funding for ongoing research and collaborative action.

Supporting documents

You can read papers below by Maggie Shapley, Adrian Cunningham, Laura Millar and Michael Piggott relating to the Documenting Australian Society Summit.