The National Library's collections range in date from the eleventh century to the present, take in every country in the world and are exceptionally broad in format and subject. They consist of books, pamphlets, periodicals, newspapers, ephemera, maps, manuscripts, private archives, music scores, pictures, microform and digital materials.

A significant proportion of what the Library holds, including some of the rarest and most valuable material, was acquired as collections. Some were built up by individual collectors, families, booksellers and learned societies, often over a long period (formed collections). Other collections have been assembled from various sources by the Library itself in an effort to achieve great strength in particular subject areas (subject collections). Many of the collections have outstanding research value.

The following entries are for the most significant of these collections. The entries give details about the individuals, families or organisations that assembled the collections, describe the size, scope and strengths of each collection, and summarise how they have been acquired, organised, catalogued or listed by the Library. While the majority of the collections described consist largely of Australian materials, there are also entries for significant Asian, European and North American collections. These descriptions are intended to complement the Library's catalogue and other finding-aids.

Between 1974 and 1982 the Library published the Guide to the collections, edited by C.A. Burmester. A number of the collections recorded in that publication have been updated and are included in the following selection.

  • About 350 photographs, including glass negatives, and a small number of pencil sketches. The majority depict paddle steamers sailing or moored on the Murray or Darling rivers and were taken over a period of a century or more
  • About 440 books published by William Pickering between 1820 and 1854 including reprints of classics and seventeenth-century Anglican religious works, plus contemporary writers of his time
  • 2780 music scores for songs and vocal and piano selections from American, British and Australian musicals, music theatre, films and television shows produced from about 1920 to 1990
  • 182 original field sheets, representing 32 map sheets, dating from 1915 to 1936. They are mounted on board, metal or linen and are of various sizes and shapes. The collection includes surveys carried out in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia
  • 2121 books, pamphlets, programs, periodicals and plays published between 1755 and 1972. The majority of the works are Portuguese plays including modern editions and facsimiles extending back to the fifteenth century
  • Ten signed stencil prints by Pablo Picasso. 54 sketchbooks of John Power, containing pencil, pen and ink, crayon and occasional watercolour sketches. A small group of personal papers of Power, and 262 books relating to art and architecture 
  • 975 books, the most significant group relating to the essayist and poet Charles Lamb and his circle. Also 250 books by or relating to the poet Edward Thomas, and a small number of titles on English natural history, belles lettres, book collecting and bookplates
  • Two oil paintings, 41 watercolours, and 38 pencil and wash or pencil drawings by John Skinner Prout, produced in the period 1841-1848, plus many lithographs and wood engravings used by Prout in his books
  • Pamphlets, journals and other publications documenting many strands of American radicalism
  • Oral history interviews related to Charles Perkins, a small number of interviews for a pilot project in how people form mental maps, and ongoing interviews for a major project 'Seven Years On' commencing in 1995 and focussing on emerging Aboriginal leaders

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