Origin of the Library

Our collection originated with the formation of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library in 1901. The Joint Parliamentary Library Committee responsible for establishing the Parliamentary Library stated its objective as ‘keeping before it the ideal of building up, for the time when Parliament shall be established in the Federal Capital, a great Public Library on the lines of the world-famed Library of Congress at Washington; such a library, indeed, as shall be worthy of the Australian Nation; the home of the literature, not of a State, or of a period, but of the world, and of all time.’

The passage in 1912 of the Copyright Act requiring Australian publishers to deposit one copy of each publication into the Parliamentary Library had immense significance for the collection

The passage of the National Library Act, 1960 saw the absorption, by the National Library, of almost all of the collection established by the Parliamentary Library.

In 1968, when our building on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin opened, it united collection material which had been dispersed around Canberra and included books, pamphlets, serials, manuscripts, maps, photographs, pictures, film, microform and sound recordings. Since then our collections have grown at a steady rate. With the establishment of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in 1984, the Library's responsibiliy for housing the national film collection was transferred to the NFSA.

The increasing growth of our collections has required the use of offsite collection storage at two facilities, with material delivered to the Library upon request. 

Foundations of the collection - the Petherick, Ferguson, and Nan Kivell collections

An early highlight for our Library's collection was the purchase, in 1923, of the journal and other manuscripts of Captain Cook. Over the ensuing decades, the acquisition of many already formed collections (items gathered around a particular theme or by a particular collector or family.) provided considerable impetus to the growth of our collection. The collections of Petherick, Ferguson, and Nan Kivell were particularly important to developing the depth and breadth of the Library's collection.

Petherick collection

The gift of the collection of Edward Augustus Petherick presented to the Library in 1909 and comprising ‘some 10,000 volumes and 6,500 pamphlets, maps, manuscripts and pictures relating to Australia and the Pacific area’.

Ferguson collection

The collection of Sir John Alexander Ferguson, transferred over many years, totals some 34,000 printed and manuscript items relating to Australia and the Pacific.

Nan Kivell collection

The Rex Nan Kivell collection, purchased in 1962, comprises pictures, prints, maps, manuscripts, books, pamphlets and photographs relating to the discovery and settlement of lands in the South Seas.

Building the collection

Building the collections has, at various times, been supported by staff postings in London, New York and Jakarta. Initiated in 1947, the Australian Joint Copying Project to microfilm records relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific area in overseas repositories lasted into the 1990s. Other developments included:

  • The systematic acquisition of publications from Asia and the Pacific after the second World War
  • The expansion of the manuscripts collection, with particular strengths in Australian politics and literature
  • The establishment of an oral history program, a dance and music collection.

The development of a National Bibliographic Database (NBD)

The Library began to produce the printed Australian National Bibliography, an up-to-date record of published Australian material, in 1936 and it continued to be produced up until 1996. Its function was absorbed by the Australian National Bibliographic Database (or ANBD), compiled since 1981 and hosted by the National Library of Australia. The National Bibliographic Database is accessible through the Libraries Australia service for subscribers and through Trove, a discovery service run by the Library.

Web Archiving and digitising our national heritage

We are maintaining a growing collection of Australian online publications in our PANDORA web archive. Digitising selected items in our collections is now providing easy online access to some of the Library’s most significant documentary heritage.

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