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Indexing of overseas passenger lists – the end of an era

Earlier today, PROV held its annual Christmas function to recognise the magnificent achievements of our volunteers over the year.  PROV volunteers are managed by the Collection Management Team and special thanks go to our Volunteers Team Leader Leigh Kinrade for another sterling year.

This year’s function was significant because it marked the end of one of the longest projects (if not THE longest) in our near 40 year history, the indexing of the inwards and outwards overseas passenger lists.  It could be argued that this task had already begun by the time PROV was established in 1973, however, a decision was taken in 1988 for all of the unassisted lists to be copied onto microfiche and reindexed.

In order to give you a sense of just why this is an achievement to be celebrated, I think it would be appropriate to provide a personal recollection of how access was provided to these shipping lists over my time at PROV.  If any former volunteers or staff are reading this, please feel free to comment below.

When I joined PROV we operated three Reading (then known as Search) Rooms.  These were located at our former Laverton Repository, our Ballarat Regional Repository and a now defunct City Search Room.  Indexing work was undertaken by volunteers based mainly at our City Office.  At the time only the inwards lists were being indexed.  Volunteers worked from these and transcribed information about each arrival or family on an index card.  The cards were then arranged in alphabetical order for each calendar year within metal index card drawers.

As only one card was created, the index could only be stored in one location.  This was the City Search Room which at the time received the bulk of our visitors.  It also meant that Reference staff, such as myself, based in the other Rooms had to remember the ever changing detail of what had been indexed and what was not.  This was to ensure researchers did not waste their time by having to read every name off every list for every ship on microfilm for a certain period of time when a visit to the City Office could provide this information in a few minutes. Obviously this was the fate for anyone wanting to find a name on the lists still to be indexed.

As the number of metal cabinets housing the cards grew, these became the dominant feature of the City Search Room.  Their combined weight posed a unique problem when the Search Room moved to 318 Little Bourke Street during September 1986.  I remember being told that, owing to the design of the floors there, the original placement of the cabinets caused the wooden floorboards to sag inwards.  The cabinets had to be arranged into a certain direction so their weight could be evenly distributed.

By then the days of the index cards were clearly marked. 1993 marked the production of the first commercially available microfiche index spanning a portion of the inward lists from foreign ports. Further indexes followed, each the result of an indexing process involving transcription, checking and double checking.

By the time the Search Room had relocated to Casselden Place during 1997 to share the National Archives of Australia Room all of the cards had been removed because more indexes on microfiche had been released. By the time the Harry Nunn Reading Room was established at the Victorian Archives Centre in 2004 the first releases of indexes on our website had begun.

So there you have it.  25 years ago the index was available only to those able to visit a tiny Search Room in the Melbourne CBD, and then, only for a fraction of the inwards lists held. Today anyone in the world can access the index for all overseas inwards and outwards lists from the comfort of their own homes.  Undoubtedly technological advances and some PROV staff (notably in my time, the late Don Grant, the late Bronwen Merrett, Judy McKinnon, Eril Wangerek, Anne Piggott, James MacKinnon, Sally Hall, Shauna Hicks and Susie Leehane) were important.  But ultimately none of the above would have been possible without the combined efforts of our volunteers, past and present.

Our volunteers are now working on a variety of Collection Management projects through which we hope to make even greater swathes of the Collection more accessible.  If you will like to participate please go to

Charlie Farrugia
Senior Collections Advisor

2 Comments to Indexing of overseas passenger lists – the end of an era

  1. Ernest Newman's Gravatar Ernest Newman
    February 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Information list of Mathieson Family arriving on the unassisted passenger list The Ship Albatross arrived 27th July 1854 in
    Melbourne. William Mathieson, Agnes Brown, William Mathieson,
    Robert Mathieson, Mary Mathieson, and James Mathieson.
    I would love to have a copy for my Family Tree.

    Regards Ernest

    • Reading_Room's Gravatar Reading_Room
      March 3, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Good morning Ernest

      To search for information regarding the arrival of the Mathieson family on the unassisted passenger list, please go to the below link:

      we have conducted a search for you on just the ship – Albatross and the year of arrival (1854) and have included the list below. It would seem that Mathieson was spelt Matheson.

      If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

      Kind regards
      Reading Room