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Cairns Historical Society

Cairns Historical Society

Logo for Cairns Historical Society


The Cairns Historical Society (CHS) is a volunteer-run, not-for-profit incorporated organisation founded in 1958 with the aim of documenting and preserving all aspects of North Queensland history, and making this material available to both members and the general public at reasonable rates. It has been based in the heritage-listed School of Arts building since its inception.



The CHS owns and has operated Cairns Museum since 1980, and also operates a Research Centre, a school outreach program and a publishing section. Until very recently CHS was operated solely by volunteers, but now employs a full-time Museum Manager and four part-time paid support staff.  There are currently about 100 volunteers most of whom work 1 to 2 days per week. 

Five years ago, the CHS packed up and stored all of its collections while the School of Arts building underwent refurbishment and extension, and new museum displays were developed. In July 2017 the new Museum was opened and the CHS Research Centre re-opened.


Community Engagement and Partnerships

In addition to the material on display in the Museum, the CHS provides access to its Archival and Imaging collections to members and the general public; researchers may make a personal visit, or contact by email, letter or phone. The Research Centre is open Monday to Friday 10 am to 3 pm. Volunteers assist researchers in the use of the archive and images catalogues and then retrieve relevant items from shelving.  Members of CHS have free access; visitors pay an entry fee which includes museum entry. There are small costs for copying and a research fee applies to email inquiries. There are online inquiry forms on the website.

The CHS cooperates and shares information with other historical societies and family history organisations, particularly those in Far North Queensland. It publishes monthly bulletins and books on local history, as well as organising field trips to heritage sites in the region. It has lobbied councils to mark significant heritage sites, supplied research and images for heritage interpretation and participated in community events and Heritage Week activities.

The CHS has a partnership agreement with Cairns Regional Council which has enabled the development of the new museum displays and the provision of an operating museum which is open to the public Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 4pm. There are several corporate sponsors for aspects of the museum operations.



The CHS has three collections. The Archives and Imaging collections cover the whole of Far North Queensland, from Cardwell in the south to the Papua New Guinea border in the north, and west to Normanton and Burketown. The Artefacts/Objects collection covers the Cairns district only.

The Archives collection consists of a nationally significant collection of books, documents, theses and student papers, maps, periodicals, newspapers and clippings, and audio-visual material, relating to the history of Far North Queensland. There are currently nearly 40,000 catalogue entries, ranging from small items such as a ticket to individual collections of several boxes. The catalogue has long been a digital one, and about six years ago was transitioned to the Libcode Library System. The CHS began digitising documents about 11 years ago, and these are linked to the relevant catalogue entry. There are currently about 15,000 items digitised, and digitising is continuing for suitable items. Researchers can view digitised items directly on CHS computers and print copies for a small fee. There are no current plans to provide on-line access to the catalogue.        

The Images collection has over 28,000 digitised images in a nationally significant database, including photographs from originals of all shapes and sizes - both loose and in albums, glass plate negatives, digital images, CDs, 35mm slides, negatives of all shapes and sizes, and old newspaper photos. It was initially catalogued on the old Archives database. Digitising commenced about 20 years ago using the Perfect Pictures program. The database can be searched on CHS computers. Photocopies and low resolution or high resolution digital copies are available for a fee.  There is no online access to the Images collection.

Objects and artefacts, over 6,000 items, are catalogued using Mosaic; there is no public access to this collection. 

The Archives and Images collections are now stored in climate-controlled conditions. Most of the Objects collection is also in climate-controlled conditions. There are still thousands of items waiting to be documented and catalogued.



The Archives collection is catalogued on the Libcode Library System, which was designed for school library catalogues but has been extensively tweaked for CHS purposes.  Data was converted from an old Paradox database. Libcode is affordable, easy to use, able to be networked, and can print reports; these features were not available with the old database. The Images catalogue uses Perfect Pictures, which allows Boolean searches. Descriptive cataloguing is essential to ensure the images are findable. Photoshop Elements software is used for editing images and is economical and easy to use. Mosaic is used for the Objects collection.



The CHS entered the digital era with a few stand-alone second-hand computers, no money and lots of trial and error. It now has an in-house server linked to the cloud, many computers, several scanners, cameras, and good IT support.



Managing and maintaining such large collections with volunteers is a challenge, particularly providing continuity, oversight and training. Few volunteers have relevant professional skills, though this is changing. Volunteers assisting researchers need to be especially familiar with the collections and be able to use the software effectively.

Finance is always an issue. Current funding is achieved through funding from the Cairns Regional Council, museum entry fees, photograph and document sales, donations and sponsorship, book sales, grants and research fees. All these funding streams have their challenges, compliance issues and timeframe constraints.

Sales from photographs and copies of documents are essential to help support continued operation of the CHS collections. Thus there are no immediate plans to provide online access to the collections, though partial access to the Archives catalogue is being considered.

Keeping up to date with technology is another issue, such as changes to computer programs, digital obsolescence, upskilling volunteers, and the transience of volunteers.



Digitisation of many documents has allowed users to view items directly on the CHS computers, reducing handling, and saving time otherwise spent in retrieval. It also speeds up the process of providing items requested by email.

Copies of images are provided world-wide to researchers, authors, television companies, museums, art galleries, family historians, university lecturers, newspapers. The collection is well-known and well-regarded.

For both collections, providing some level of online access could speed up the process of identifying researcher needs. However, this must be balanced by the need to retain control, particularly of images, and to maintain the income stream.


Contact details

If you would like more information on the work Cairns Historical Society is undertaking, please contact them at