Building the nation’s memory

The Library aspires to enable Australians to understand their diverse social, cultural and intellectual histories by collecting and preserving Australian publications and unpublished collections—in print and digital forms—so that they can be enjoyed by current and future generations. It also aspires to build a rich collection of print and digital resources that enable learning, research and understanding of the Asia-Pacific region and Australia’s place in the world.

(National Library of Australia Corporate Plan, 2016-20, Strategic Priority 1)

Purpose of the Collection Development Policy

The Library’s Collection Development Policy defines the scope and nature of its collecting of Australian and Overseas materials. It sets out the key principles that underpin the ongoing development of the Library’s national collection and from which the Library’s decisions to acquire materials flow: why, what, when and how to collect. The Policy covers materials of different types of intellectual, literary and creative content, in either published or unpublished form, across different formats, and delineates when the Library takes responsibility for the long-term preservation of and access to materials.


Historically, the Library built its collections as part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library from 1901 until 1960, when the National Library was formally established under its own Act and the majority of the collections were physically transferred with the opening of the Library’s building in 1968. The history of the foundation collections and subsequent collecting directions can be found at history of the collection, with an overview of collection highlights.

Since 1960, the Library has regularly revised its collecting policy to reflect changes in the internal and external environment, taking account of trends and innovations in publishing and content creation, information technology and collection management, changing research paradigms, legal frameworks and social, political and cultural contexts.

As a living document, each iteration of the Policy aims to provide guidance for staff, other libraries, users and the community on the Library’s collecting activities across different formats and subject areas. Significant changes were made to the overseas policy in 2011-12, but the Australian collection policy was last reviewed in 2007-8. The 2016 iteration represents a significant revision to the Policy as a whole.

What is different about the revision?

This revision establishes a new approach to the Policy framework, content and structure. It seeks to:

  • create a cohesive set of principles and priorities across all collecting areas, framed as a single policy, allowing for more strategic development of the collections in alignment with Library corporate planning
  • move away from highly defined collecting rules and procedures for different types of materials towards a Library-wide approach based on common principles
  • integrate physical and digital collecting through a set of common principles and priorities
  • allow the Library to be more flexible in adapting its collecting activity to meet future challenges, innovations and types of publication or creation of materials
  • provide staff with a strong, flexible framework for decision making, that allows them to weigh and judge factors such as format, content, relevance and significance of materials against stated principles, considerations and priorities.

A single policy approach

At the centre of the Policy is a continuum collecting approach─from comprehensive collections, where relevant materials are acquired to the greatest extent possible, through representative collections, where the Library selects a manageable amount of material to represent a type, creator or subject, to selective collections, where items of national priority or special significance are identified and collected.

For the first time, common priorities are applied across the continuum and across collection formats. This opens up the possibility of creating rich collections across priority areas. For example, complementing a significant personal archive with website material and social media feeds.

The contemporary environment for building collections

The context for the creation and development, management, interpretation of and provision of access to collections has changed significantly over the last decade for all major research libraries world-wide. Libraries everywhere are moving from an era of acquiring, owning and preserving all their own materials, according to defined institutional collecting guidelines, to an era where networks of collaboration, cooperation and licensing can provide ready access to global digital content.

Sustainability and stewardship

  • It is now necessary to distinguish between what is ‘in the collection’, that is, owned and preserved by the Library, and what the Library does not ‘own’, that is, licensed resources and collection materials owned by others but which users can access via the Library’s catalogue or via the national discovery service Trove. Trove, for example, brings together content from a range of different collecting institutions in a single experience by aggregating metadata. 
  • The Policy defines principles by which to determine what the Library should acquire, what it should aim to preserve in perpetuity (i.e. what it should take stewardship of), and what it should provide access to through another trusted collecting institution or vendor. Access can take many forms, from the purchase of a license to allow the Library’s readers to access material, through to arrangements with partner institutions for collaborative digitisation of materials.
  • The Library must balance its mandate to ensure treasured materials are preserved for the Australian people in the long-term with the need for efficient allocation of resources, including minimising duplication of both storage and digitisation processes where material is already widely available. In affirming the Library’s ongoing stewardship role, the new policy approach also underlines the importance of collaboration between institutions to develop secure, efficient and accessible collections for Australians.
  • The Library must determine also whether it is able to guarantee long-term preservation of a work. For this reason, Australian resources acquired through licenses are purchased with a perpetual license when possible, which includes an agreement allowing the Library to obtain a copy of the files should the provider no longer be able to provide access. Although the Library aims to optimise discovery and access to materials not held in the collection and, when in scope, provide perpetual access to them, at times international licensing arrangements or copyright provisions mean such decisions are outside the Library’s control.
  • The Library aims to preserve digital materials acquired for the collection when technically possible, but the technology and system processes required to make these collections accessible to the public are not yet always well developed.

Volume and variety

  • The Library’s collecting program is marked by rich variety and mass volume. Each year, the Library adds many tens of thousands of items to its collections, encompassing a great diversity of material type, content, focus and subject matter.
  • The ease of production and distribution of born-digital materials, whether published materials such as ebooks or unpublished materials such as photographic archives, has resulted in an exponential increase in material potentially available for the Library to collect. At the same time, individuals, organisations and government departments are divesting themselves of existing print collections, resulting in a sharp increase in offers and requests for the Library to house and preserve physical material, both published and unpublished, for long-term stewardship.
  • This increased volume and variety, combined with static or declining staff resources, has placed considerable strain on the Library’s acquisition processes, ability to respond to offers within appropriate timeframes, and capacity to collect proactively or fill collection gaps. The Policy aims to support staff to connect strategic priorities to the operational environment and to ensure the Library retains the capacity and capability to acquire, manage and make collections available in the current context.

Collaboration and networking

  • The collecting process now inevitably places a higher priority on collaboration between acquisitions staff in different areas of the Library, and between collecting institutions. The Policy sets out the primary relationships of the Library in relation to other Australian libraries and collecting institutions, while affirming the role of the Library in providing Australians with access to the resources they need to support their research, education, understanding and enjoyment. It provides a guide to enable a greater degree of cooperation in the development of collections in the national interest.
  • The Library works collaboratively with other national, state and territory collecting institutions, to ensure that together we:
    • build a comprehensive national collection, accessible to all Australians
    • preserve the published outputs, intellectual and creative endeavour of Australian people and organisations
    • capture Australian voices published overseas
    • make the Library’s holdings widely known and accessible
    • repatriate material digitally when appropriate.

Changing nature of scholarship

Changing research practices and the evolving nature of collection resources impact on the type of materials the Library can collect permanently, as well as shifting the paradigm from collecting to access, especially with resources from the wider world. The Library takes particular responsibility for stewardship of eResources in the humanities, social sciences and the arts, but not in science and technology.

Shifting attitudes toward data sharing, methodologies in eresearch, and the nature of academic discourse all have implications for the Library’s collecting. These also affect collaboration, with an increasing role for other trusted institutions and stakeholders in ensuring that data sets and the outcomes of research are preserved for the long-term.

Integrating physical and digital

The revised Policy applies consistent criteria to collecting works based on the intellectual, creative, literary and social content of the material. With few exceptions—most notably websites—the Policy does not provide separate guidance for physical or digital format variations. The changing technology of library materials exists within a continuum of Australian life—discussion, debate, creativity, intellectual production and the recording of everyday life have been part of Australian society for centuries. Future users will be able to research these activities in the Library’s collections across a range of communication technologies, from early Australian broadsides to 21st century social media sites.

Legislative framework for published materials (legal deposit provisions)

The Library was separately established under the National Library Act (1960), which outlines the responsibility to create a comprehensive collection of library material relating to Australia and the Australian people. For this purpose, its collecting role is further defined in the Copyright Act 1968, including provisions requiring Australian publishers to deposit a copy of their publications with the Library (legal deposit provisions). 

From February 2016, legal deposit provisions have applied to both digital and physical publications, ensuring that the Library’s comprehensive collections include forms of publication such as the web and ebooks as well as more traditional formats. More information about the legal deposit program, including information on what and how to deposit, is available—legal deposit.

Developing online collections

The Library is committed to making its collections as accessible as possible. Digitisation, as well as aggregation of metadata, is critical to increasing discovery and use of the collections. To this end, the Library participates in the Australian Newspapers Plan (ANPlan), leading a vibrant cooperative program with state and territory libraries and other organisations to collect, preserve and digitise Australian newspapers. For other materials, the Library actively works to make more of its physical collections freely available online. The Library’s digitisation policy and corporate plan complements this Collection Development Policy.

Acquisition and selection procedures for born digital materials, including pictures and manuscripts, have been updated to include a risk assessment for any large acquisitions of digital material to ensure that the long-term preservation issues are considered.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections

Collecting of material created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been a significant focus of the Library in recent years, and the Library has obtained rich archival, pictorial and oral history collections to support this aim. By their nature, the Library’s earliest collections were limited to perspectives on Australian culture reflected through European tradition. Australia has also been recorded and reflected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through artistic, cultural, social and intellectual expression and traditions, but not necessarily represented in written form and thus in previous Library collecting. In the revised Policy, the Library actively seeks to redress this through placing a strong priority on collecting material created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, both retrospective and contemporary.

Ethical collecting

In accordance with guidelines outlined in the Australian Best Practice Guide to Collecting Cultural Material, the Library exercises best ethical and professional practice and judgement in collecting cultural materials, including respecting First Nations protocols, cultural restrictions and sensitivities. The Library undertakes appropriate due diligence, including provenance research, and is accountable and transparent in acquiring material by purchase, gift, bequest or exchange. The Library complies with Commonwealth governance, performance and accountability rules.

The Library ensures cultural material has been legally exported from the country of origin and intermediate countries. The Library does not acquire material where there are suspicions it was obtained through unauthorised means or theft from individuals or other repositories. The Library reviews new information about an item in the institution's collection and undertakes further investigations, if required.

The Policy sets out various methodologies for acquiring materials in the section ‘how we collect’.