Background reading

There are two main types of background reading that will be useful to your research:

  • Family and personal histories – family, community histories and life stories or biographies are histories of individuals, families, communities, missions, reserves or other places
  • Administrative histories – histories of the legislation and administration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Family and personal histories

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have written histories of their own lives, their families and of communities such as missions or reserves. These are mostly published books and should be available in public libraries. You may find that someone has already done a lot of the research that's on your plan. And you may get ideas for sources to explore.

AIATSIS has a comprehensive collection of writings by and about Indigenous people. Some of the collection is indexed by name in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Biographical Index (ABI).

Search strategies

Start your background reading by searching and browsing the ABI and Mura® catalogue.

Note that the search results will also give you some information about the language and people groups associated with places or names. See Thinking about place.

Other places to search for family histories:

  • ›The National Library catalogue – you might include family name, place, ‘Indigenous’ and ‘family history’ in your search string. For example: ‘Smith Indigenous Northern Territory’.
  • ›Google and Google books – you might include family name, place, ‘Indigenous’ and ‘family history’ in your search string.

Administrative histories

The term ‘administrative history’ refers to the protection and welfare legislation that the states and territories had for the protection or welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Each state was different so it’s worth knowing what happened in the states that are important to your family.

Why do you need to know?

Some of the records that may be available about your family were created because of the legislation. For example, the protection legislation may have allowed individuals to apply for an ‘exemption’ from the Act. This meant that an Aboriginal person wasn’t treated as Aboriginal for the purpose of the Act and means that there should be a file somewhere with the exemption application and other paperwork.

Research guides

Each of the state, territory and commonwealth archives that holds government records on Aboriginal protection welfare acts has created research guides to help people trying to find records about themselves or their families. All of these guides include a short history of the protection/welfare regime and the kinds of records that were created.

New South Wales

Northern Territory


South Australia



Western Australia

See also: Legislation

AIATSIS online exhibition: To Remove and Protect

This online resource includes digital copies of legislation relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and some of the protector’s reports submitted to state governments. It has information for states and territories as well as the federal government.

See: To Remove and Protect



Last reviewed: 21 Oct 2016