7.1 As part of its national heritage responsibilities, the Library collects pictures which will meet the needs of researchers, publishers and exhibition curators for visual documentation of Australian history and society.


7.2 In collecting pictures that document Australian history and society, the Library focuses on people, places and events located on the Australian continent and its territories, and on the activities of Australians overseas, especially in Antarctica and Papua New Guinea. For the period up to the mid-nineteenth century, the geographical focus is broader, encompassing European exploration of the South Pacific and the departure of convicts and settlers from Great Britain.

7.3 The Library collects pictures in a wide range of formats, including:

  • oil paintings, watercolours, drawings executed by pencil, chalk or crayon, sketchbooks and cartoons;
  • engravings, etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, aquatints, mezzotints, screenprinted posters and other prints;
  • photographs in black and white or colour in all formats, including digital photographs;
  • postcards.

7.4 The Library acquires published posters as part of the collection of Australian printed materials (see para 3.31); the posters are housed with the pictures collection for ease of storage and handling. With the exception of nineteenth-century illustrated Australian newspapers, illustrated books and serials do not form part of the pictures collection.

7.5 Although the Library has collected three dimensional objects in the past, they are no longer a major focus of the Library’s collecting. Objects with a high level of visual content, such as board games, are acquired selectively. Other objects are occasionally accepted as part of a multi-format collection, or because they have a strong relationship with material already held by the Library. The Library acquires portrait busts on the rare occasions when other visual representations are not available.


7.6 Since its early years the Library has collected pictures as part of its effort to preserve documentary records of Australia and its people. The collection of about 47 000 paintings, drawings and prints mainly dates from the second half of the eighteenth century until the end of the nineteenth century. The collection of over 600 000 photographs dates from the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century until the present. In more recent years, digital images have been collected in accordance with collecting policy guidelines for pictures.

7.7 The pictures collection contains many items of great aesthetic value. In selecting for acquisition, however, the Library chooses pictures primarily for documentary or historical content, rather than purely for artistic merit. Preference is consequently given to pictures that represent their subject matter with accuracy and detail. The Library prefers the particular to the general, with greater value being placed on works that can be precisely dated and where the people or places that appear in them can be identified.

7.8 Most works acquired are representational, with the overall aim of documenting the major themes, events, and social and environmental changes in Australian history. Non-representational works may be acquired where:

  • the works reveal the social, cultural and ideological preconceptions and assumptions of Australian artists and photographers, especially those who have had some influence on the way that Australians look at their country or people;
  • the works represent the viewpoints of significant groups within Australian society;
  • the works have been central to an event or public debate: e.g. a manipulated photograph which figured in a national controversy.

7.9 In documenting Australian history and society, the Library collects pictures that record the arrival of Europeans in Australia and their first impressions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

7.10 Other subjects that the Library seeks to document in pictures include industry, agriculture and land management, the built environment, transport, technology, working and living conditions, religion, migration, Australia’s multicultural society, travel, leisure, the performing arts, political and public events.

7.11 In collecting pictures of the natural environment, the Library focuses on the first European impressions of Australian landscapes, flora and fauna, and on works that show the changes that have been made to particular landscapes and ecosystems. For the post-colonial period the Library collects paintings or photographs of flora and fauna or works that depict generalised Australian landscapes only where the paintings or photographs have influenced, or reflect significant attitudes of, the Australian people, such as photographs used in publicity campaigns by the Conservation movement.

7.12 The Library continues to give high priority to portraits, collecting portraits of Australians of national significance as well as portraits of individuals and groups who are not necessarily well-known but who are representative of different occupations or of various social, racial or cultural aspects of Australian life.

7.13 The Library attempts to collect portraits of significant creators represented in the Library’s manuscript collection and of significant interviewees in the oral history and folklore recordings collection. The Library also collects portraits of significant Australians who may not be well-represented in the Library’s other special collections – lawyers are one example.

7.14 In assessing whether the subject of a portrait is of national significance the Library considers the extent to which the subject is known beyond their field, and the extent to which they are likely to sustain public interest and achieve historical importance. Portraits are preferably dated and, with major figures, a range of portraits is often sought taken at different times of their lives. Where only one portrait of a subject is collected, preference is given to a portrait that depicts the subject at a significant time during their life and career. Portraits are generally acquired as photographs, and should provide an authentic record of the physical appearance of the subject. Portraits in other media, ranging from oils to cartoons, are acquired where the artist has captured a significant attitude to the subject.

7.15 The Library collects portraits of individuals or groups which represent aspects of Australian life and which contribute to the social record of the time. These portraits indicate something about the lives, attitudes or customs of the individuals portrayed or depict individuals within a context which has social significance. Pictures are collected of members of cultural, ethnic, language, gender, age and occupational groups. In documenting groups, the Library aims to reflect the diversity of Australian society through selecting pictures of members of smaller groups, such as women in non-traditional occupations, as well as of larger groups, such as older persons. Pictures of people in groups are particularly valuable where they depict group activities or suggest clues about the social composition and relationships of the groups.

7.16 The Library continues to collect on a highly selective basis pictures relating to people, places and events in other countries, especially Papua New Guinea, the South Pacific, South-East Asia and the Antarctic. In almost all cases they are collected because they directly or indirectly document the activities of Australians in those countries.

7.17 In selecting pictures, the Library gives consideration to their relationship with other National Library collections, especially the manuscript and oral history and folklore recordings collections.

7.18 The Library acquires works for the pictures collection through purchase, donation, copying of items with the owner’s permission, and commission. Since the main costs associated with collecting — the costs of cataloguing, digitising, preserving, storing and retrieving — are independent of the method of acquisition, the Library applies the same level of selectivity to donations as to purchased works. Commissions are given to photographers to record events or themes where pictures are not readily available, or where gaps in the collection are identified.

7.19 In seeking or accepting works, the Library considers the work’s suitability for long-term preservation, and the potential cost of reformatting works that are on unstable media. For these reasons, preference is given to archivally-processed black and white photographic prints rather than colour prints; to black and white negatives and transparencies rather than colour negatives and transparencies; to glass and polyester negatives rather than acetate and nitrate negatives; and to digital files over digitally-derived prints. When acquiring images as digital files, the Library gives preference to formats that have sufficient resolution to allow reproduction at publication quality, and that are either uncompressed or have lossless compression.

7.20 In selecting pictures for acquisition, the Library gives preference to pictures that are accompanied by captions of sufficient detail to provide researchers with an indication of the topic, place and date of the picture, and the names of significant people.

7.21 The Library undertakes reviews to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of particular parts of the collection and maintains desiderata lists. On the basis of the findings, efforts are then made to fill important gaps and to strengthen certain areas by seeking pictures held by individuals and organisations, by arranging the copying of works, and by commissioning photographs.

7.22 The Library acquires pictures with the intention of retaining them forever. Pictures collection items are de-accessioned only in rare circumstances. For example, photographic negatives from the mid-twentieth century on acetate stock may be de-accessioned if they have degenerated to a state where their content is unrecognisable. Where feasible, a high-quality copy of de-accessioned material is retained.

Access to the Collections

7.23 The Library gives high priority to making its collections readily accessible. New picture acquisitions are made available through the Library’s Catalogue database which contains digitised images and bibliographic records, and through combined databases, such as PictureAustralia to which the Library contributes. When negotiating acquisitions of pictures that are still in copyright, the Library seeks permission to digitise the pictures for access through these Internet-based services.

Relations with other Institutions

7.24 7.24 The Library recognises that some categories of documentary pictures are of special relevance for other Commonwealth collecting institutions. Thus material relating primarily to Australian participation in armed conflicts is usually referred to the Australian War Memorial. Posters and film stills and other pictures which document the Australian film, video, sound or broadcasting industries are referred to the National Film and Sound Archive. The Library recognises that the Australian National Maritime Museum is the prime repository for pictures of Australian maritime history, and while the Library has considerable strengths in pictures of ships and shipping in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it will refer most offers in this subject area to the National Maritime Museum. The Library continues to acquire portraits of documentary and research value, maintaining a close working relationship with the National Portrait Gallery to ensure collecting policies are complementary.

7.25 The policies and activities of other collecting institutions, particularly state and regional libraries, also have a bearing on the Library's collecting priorities and procedures. In acquiring pictures of Australian places, the Library focuses on pictures that document themes of national significance, such as transport, urban development or agriculture, and does not seek to document comprehensively all major towns or regions.

7.26 The Library seeks to make effective use of public money by consultation with other public institutions. Duplication of images (in the case of prints and photographs) is sometimes justified in order to meet the needs of researchers, but generally an effort is made to ensure that collections complement each other.

7.27 In acquiring works by Australian Indigenous artists, the Library adheres to the Indigenous Australian Art Charter of Principles for Publicly Funded Collecting Institutions (49.3 kb)