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 200 recordings made between 1968 and 2006. The early recordings are of folk music and folklore, most of the later recordings are oral histories documenting family history, local history, work experiences, music and other arts.

  • Collection of Australian drama consisting of 197 unpublished plays in typescript or manuscript form by Australian authors 

  • Large collection of papers from the politician William Morris Hughes including correspondence, official papers and reports, diaries, notebooks, newspaper cuttings, speeches, invitations, menus, photographs, books, pamphlets, election material and photographs.

  • About 6500 lantern slides, glass negatives and photographs, mostly of Australian ships, especially sailing ships, but there are also photographs of harbours, wharves, towns, hospitals and other subjects.

  • Over 10,000 black and white negatives and colour transparencies, about 1000 exhibition prints, several photograph albums, a group of stereographs, plus diaries and personal papers. They date from about 1911 until Hurley’s death in 1962

  • About 960 photographs of productions, dancers and others associated with ballet companies, about 650 programs, cast lists, souvenir booklets, invitations and ephemera, plus personal papers of Geoffrey Ingram and Edouard and Xenia Borovansky.

  • 2646 pamphlets, tracts and leaflets published in Britain and Ireland between 1770 and 1976. In general the pamphlets describe, debate and criticize the political, economic, social and religious affairs, divisions and conflicts in Ireland in these two centuries.

  • 1011 plays and libretti published in Italy between about 1720 and 1900. They include a number of Italian translations of plays written by French, German and other European dramatists

  • About 360 titles, particularly strong in first editions of English poetry and novels published in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century

  • 453 books, pamphlets and leaflets in French or Latin that had been condemned and suppressed by ecclesiastical and civil authorities, as well as commentaries on those writings. They extend from the rise of Jansenism in the second quarter of the seventeenth century to the French Revolution.