5.1 The Library collects manuscripts, archival records and other unpublished textual materials which form part of the documentary record of Australian history and society and which will meet the documentation, research, publication and exhibition needs of the Australian research community.


5.2 In the context of library collections, manuscripts comprise handwritten, typescript, electronic and other forms of unpublished textual records. They can be acquired as: (i) single items, such as a letter or a diary; (ii) organic or archival collections, i.e. papers created and acquired by an individual, family or organisation in the course of their day-to-day activities; (iii) artificial or non-organic collections, i.e. documents acquired deliberately by a collector on account of their research or aesthetic interest, or their historical association.

5.3 The historical or evidential value of organic collections, which make up the bulk of the Library’s manuscript collection, derives not only from the information contained in the individual items but also from the context, including the physical connections that existed between some or all of the items. Collections are, therefore, generally kept by the Library as they were used during their active life and arranged and described in this order. Collections may contain a variety of records including pamphlets, issues of journals, leaflets, maps and other printed items and also photographs, sound recordings and objects. To preserve context it is important to keep these items together in their original order and relationships: the integrity of the whole collection is more important than the format of the items within it.


5.4 The manuscript collection currently contains over 2 million items (an item being a file or volume), amounting to more than 13 000 shelf metres. It relates predominantly to Australia, but there are also some important Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Pacific manuscripts acquired as a result of Australia’s close relations with these countries and regions. A number of European and Asian manuscripts or collections have been acquired, nearly always as part of formed book collections.

5.5 While many significant eighteenth and nineteenth century manuscripts are held, the greatest strength dates from the 1890s onwards, reflecting the Federation movement and Australia’s development as a nation. Although single items, such as a diary or a literary manuscript, are often acquired, the collection consists predominantly of archives of individuals and families and of national non-governmental organisations. There is great strength in many fields, particularly maritime exploration, politics, public administration, literature and the performing arts, including classical music, dance and theatre. In varying degrees, strengths have also developed in areas such as exploration (including Australian involvement in the Antarctic), the pastoral industry, diplomacy, journalism, law, the women’s movement, economics, tertiary education, historiography, publishing, the visual arts, librarianship and religion.

5.6 In addition to original manuscripts, the Library holds about 40 000 reels of microfilm of manuscripts and archival records. They were mostly acquired overseas and are primarily of Australian and Pacific interest. They include materials copied in the United Kingdom and Ireland by the Australian Joint Copying Project (1948–93) and records of Pacific interest filmed by the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau.

5.7 The collection has been assembled primarily to meet the need of historians and other researchers for primary source material relating to Australia and the surrounding region. The largest group of users are academics, postgraduate students, independent scholars and writers. Some items have been acquired largely for their symbolic value and are seen and admired through exhibitions and publications.

5.8 The Library gives the highest priority to collecting, firstly, personal papers of Australians who have achieved national standing and, secondly, the records of major organisations operating at the national and coordination or ‘peak body’ level. It does not confine itself to any particular subject fields, although, in collecting both personal papers and organisational records the Library seeks to build on existing strengths. While the national standing of the individuals or bodies is a major factor, the Library always assesses the value of the papers themselves as historical evidence and their ability to support extended research in different branches of scholarship. In all cases, the Library prefers that personal papers are transferred to the Library appropriately arranged, housed and with documentation sufficient to provide initial description prior to full arrangement and description.

5.9 The Library identifies areas of importance in Australian life that are inadequately documented, such as popular culture or multiculturalism. It tries to remedy those weaknesses by seeking papers from people or organisations that have been prominent in those areas at the national level.

5.10 Much of the acquisition activity concentrates on locating and preserving sources on aspects of contemporary Australian life. At the same time the Library is alert to opportunities to acquire earlier material. Papers dating from the first century of European settlement often relate entirely to a single town, district or colony and in such instances they are more appropriately housed in a state or local library. The Library, however, has an interest in acquiring manuscripts that document movements or events of a national character, such as maritime discovery, free immigration, the gold rushes, race relations and Federation.

5.11 In collecting manuscripts and archives that document such movements, the Library is not restricted to material written by or associated with famous names. The writers of diaries kept on immigrant voyages did not usually achieve any national or even local standing, but the papers they created are a valuable source on large-scale emigration to Australia. Similarly, in seeking to document major social movements in modern times, the first concern is with the historical value of the papers rather than the fame or otherwise of the individuals who created them. Papers relating to the conservation movement, multiculturalism or republicanism, for instance, are sought if they provide extensive and broad documentation of these movements. In each case, care is taken to distinguish between papers that essentially deal with activities at a local level and those that relate to policies, programs, debates or changes at the national level.

5.12 The Library is increasingly selective in seeking or accepting organisational records. It firstly considers the likely value of the material for academic and independent researchers. Secondly, it gives priority to bodies that exercise considerable power and influence at the national level and which are wide-ranging in the scope of their activities, such as political parties, multiple interest groups and major peak bodies. Thirdly, it gives attention to organisational records that relate closely to holdings of personal papers. Finally, special consideration is given to the records of organisations that have become defunct or have no staff able to care for them. The Library accepts organisational records only if these have been arranged and described by the organisation prior to transfer to the Library.

5.13 These priorities in the area of organisational archives need to be qualified in two respects. In accordance with the 1961 agreement with the Australian National University Archives Program (Noel Butlin Archives Centre), the Library does not collect or accept certain categories of organisational records, namely, those of companies, employer associations and trade unions. The Library encourages large organisations, which generate records on a huge scale, to make their own arrangements for the preservation of their records, preferably by employing professional archivists.

5.14 The Library continues to collect manuscripts that document the role of Canberra as the national capital and seat of government. In the past, records relating to local activities in the Australian Capital Territory and the surrounding region were acquired, but they are now referred to the ACT Heritage Library.

5.15 Increasingly, organisations and individuals are creating archives in digital or audiovisual forms. The Library is selective in accepting born digital records such as emails, electronic documents and databases, and audiovisual records such as cassettes, CDs, videotape and DVDs for permanent preservation.

5.16 The Library continues to acquire microfilm copies of unpublished records held in other libraries and archives in Australia and overseas. Priority is given to filming or obtaining film of records of Australian and Pacific interest that have hitherto been entirely or largely inaccessible to researchers in Australia. The Library sometimes acquires commercially available microfilms of non-Australian archives and manuscripts that are likely to be of value to a considerable number of Australian historians and other researchers.

Access to the Collections

5.17 Manuscripts and archival materials are unique and irreplaceable. They are frequently fragile and can be easily damaged. For these reasons, they should only be handled in conditions designed to ensure their long-term survival and accessibility.

5.18 Provided there are no preservation risks or copyright restrictions, copies of manuscripts can be made by readers or for readers within the Library or from offsite. Copies are also lent to other libraries. Some of the most heavily used items and collections have been microfilmed and copies of the film can be purchased or borrowed by other libraries. The Library is also digitising some of its most important manuscript collections, making them accessible to any users via the Internet.

Relations with other Institutions

5.19 Manuscripts are unique and are often of interest to more than one institution. Some collections could justifiably be housed in any of several institutions. In such cases the Library takes into account the collecting interests of other Australian libraries and archives, giving consideration to collection strengths and the need to maintain the integrity of collections. It also assesses the likely research value of particular collections on offer, recognising that in a large country some research will be hampered if the collecting of manuscripts is either too centralised or too decentralised.

5.20 The National Archives of Australia and the various state and territory archival authorities have statutory responsibilities in relation to government records. Other national institutions, such as the Australian War Memorial, the National Film and Sound Archive, and the Australian National University Archives (Noel Butlin Archives Centre) concentrate in their collecting on specific subject areas. State and territory libraries, and also some regional libraries and archives, have a strong interest in a wide range of manuscripts and private archives generated in or relating to their respective states, territories or regions.