The Research Centre holds the written records of war, both published and unpublished. Most of the collection is open to the public for use in the Research Centre, subject to legal restrictions or those imposed by donors.

The Research Centre’s collections are arranged in three sections:

The Memorial’s unique and diverse collection includes over 15,000 boxes of records from official sources; it also contains the nation’s largest archive of the writings of ordinary Australians about their experience of war. Over 60,000 books on aspects of Australia’s military history are also available to the public in the Research Centre, in addition to journals, maps and charts, sheet music, and ephemera such as postcards.

The collection has its origins in the First World War. In 1917 Australia's official war correspondent, C.E.W. Bean, and Lieutenant General Sir Brudenell White established the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) as part of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The AWRS aimed to assemble a comprehensive range of documentary evidence representing Australia’s conduct of that war. Lieutenant John Treloar, who would later become the Director of the Australian War Memorial, was appointed as officer-in-charge of the AWRS. AWRS staff supervised the collection of original war diaries from the military units that created them; it also gathered maps and other unit records, as well as newspapers, other kinds of publications, and posters. An Australian War Museum Committee was also established to collect a variety of records from the home front.

C.E.W. Bean is regarded as the Memorial's founder. When at his urging the Australian War Memorial was established by an Act of Parliament in 1925, the AWRS collection was transferred to the Memorial. The collection then began to expand rapidly, with the addition of personal papers, published memoirs, the first volumes of Australian official war histories, and copies of British, German, and Turkish books and other sources. With the Second World War and subsequent conflicts in which Australia was involved, war diaries and other unit records from these conflicts were (and continue to be) added to the Memorial's collection to document Australia’s military history and heritage.

The majority of the Research Centre’s collections relate to the First and Second World Wars. The collections also cover Australia’s involvement in conflicts dating back to the late nineteenth century, conflicts since 1945, ongoing conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

Official Records

The Official Records collection holds operational and planning records created by the Australian Army, Navy, and Air Force during wartime, and the papers of the official historians. There are also some biographical records and miscellaneous records on a very wide variety of war-related topics. Official records are managed in accordance with the Archives Act 1983. This collection requires approximately 4,000 metres of shelf space to store.

The collection can be searched using the National Archives Australia database RecordSearch. A general guide to this collection, A Chronological Guide to Official Records in the Australian War Memorial's Collections, will assist researchers in gaining access to the collection.

Private Records

The Private Records collection consists of over 9,500 collections of records from many sources. Some come from non-government organisations but most are the personal papers of individuals from all ranks and services of the Australian armed forces. They include privately donated diaries, letters, notebooks, papers, and cards written during wartime, as well as some reminiscences written after the event. The oldest items date back to the 1860s.

Access to the Private Records collection

The Collection Search lists the details of the Memorial’s Private Records collection. For the larger collections in Private Records, there are also a number of finding aids available. These provide a description of the collection’s content and its organisation, as well as information about the creator of the collection.

Published and Digitised Collections

The Published and Digitised collection contains over 60,000 books; 3,000 serials, including troopship serials (also known as unit or trench journals); 30,000 maps, plans and charts; and extensive collections of stamps, military forms, postcards, leaflets, sheet music, souvenirs, Christmas cards, cigarette cards, aerial photographs, and newspaper clippings. The monograph collection is particularly strong in twentieth-century Australian and British army manuals; histories of Australian, British, American, and German units; and other nations’ official war histories. These collections cover over 3,200 shelf metres.

Access to the Published and Digitised Collections

Researchers can search for books, serials, maps, and sheet music using the Books database. There are finding aids available for selected special collections. Researchers who are unable to come to Canberra can search Libraries Australia or Trove to see if copies of books and serials are held in libraries near them.