Unpublished collections document Australian history, society and culture.  These special collections uniquely record people, places and events, as well as capturing ideas, attitudes and values, social change and creative processes. They provide particular insight into the historical, social, cultural and political contexts in which they were originally created.

Together, the unpublished collections focus on:

  • the lives, experiences and activities of individuals who have achieved national prominence in a variety of fields
  • the experiences, viewpoints or perspectives of people who share a common experience,  cultural identity,  place, or have been central to an event or topic of public importance
  • national organisations or significant groups that have influenced public life and debate or shaped social change
  • people who reflect cultural, social and linguistic diversity.

‘Unpublished’ materials

The ‘unpublished’ collections mainly consist of manuscripts and archives, pictures, and oral history and folklore recordings. The Library houses, describes and manages these separately from the ‘published’ collections, although special formed collections, web archives, maps, music and rare books also contain some ‘unpublished’ materials. Similarly, unpublished collections often contain a variety of media, including some published materials. An archive that is created or assembled by an individual or organisation is likely to contain many different types of records without regard to media, format or type. Unpublished collections also increasingly contain both physical and digital materials. 

Approaches to collecting

The Library maintains its broad distinction between ‘published’ and ‘unpublished’ collections primarily to differentiate approaches to collecting.  

Some distinguishing characteristics are:

  • Unpublished collections are not subject to legal deposit.
  • Unpublished collections are acquired from individuals or groups through diverse processes, and require ongoing relationships with creators and donors for access and use.
  • Unpublished collecting is highly selective. Using the priorities outlined in the Principles, Library staff exercise judgement to determine the significance of materials and the research, documentary or historical value of a collection. 
  • Once a subject, person, event or group is ‘selected’ for collecting, when possible the Library then collects materials comprehensively or representatively, to ensure depth, coverage and cohesion that will support advanced research and interpretation. 
  • The Library builds on unpublished collections in several ways. For example, it may:
    • enhance a single accumulated collection over the long term, by adding components or instalments (for example, ongoing records of a political party; a second interview with a person later in life)
    • acquire related collections to build depth and breadth or fill a gap in the documentary record
    • complement a collection across material types, for example, a personal archive and an archived website, an oral history recording and documentary photographs
    • commission sound recordings, and occasionally photography, to create materials where this is the most efficient or most appropriate means to capture a subject
    • represent a subject, event or place from a wide range of perspectives.

An example that illustrates these approaches is the Library’s unpublished collections around the Australian response to HIV-AIDS.  An Oral History project recorded 82 interviews with people living with HIV-AIDS, medical personnel, politicians, bureaucrats and advocates; Manuscripts collected personal papers of individuals such as gay rights campaigner Denis Altman and policy advisor Bill Bowtell, president of the Australian Federation of AIDS organisations and director of the AIDS Trust. The Library commissioned portraits of interviewees and experts and collected photographs, signs, posters, drawings and cartoons capturing the Australian response.

Collecting priorities

Collecting unpublished materials is a priority for the Library. Their permanent preservation for future generations has become especially pressing in response to the impact of technological disruption and transition from physical to digital documentation. 

The Library aims to collect unpublished materials proactively, according to the priorities outlined in the principles. However, the Library must remain responsive to offers of personal, organisational, photographic and oral archives, as well as related collections. Given the extent of such materials still held by creators, such offers are increasing in range, volume as well as format complexity. These collections also involve a high degree of curatorial activity to select, acquire, describe and manage.  For these reasons, the Library often collects unpublished materials reactively, responding to opportunity, rather than according to systematic planning. 

The principles set out the range of criteria used to balance priorities, including the cost and ease of preservation and access. Format issues and obsolescence make it essential to prioritise the transfer of analogue and printed formats to digital in some collections. The lifespan of audio-visual recordings is limited by their physical and chemical stability, and various recording technologies and playback equipment are obsolete. Similarly, photographs are prone to various types of deterioration through chemical instability, pollutants and physical fragility.

Unpublished materials are subject to a wide range of external factors that impact on what the Library collects: for example, how materials were originally created, what has survived, how and from whom collections are offered, relationships between creators and collectors, copyright and other rights affecting management and use of collections. The Library acts in accordance with the wishes of donors and creators and respects privacy, copyright, intellectual and moral rights, while making collections as open and accessible as possible for research, within agreed timeframes. 


Definition and scope

In a contemporary library context, ‘manuscripts’ is a broad term used to refer to:

  • single original items, such as a letter or a diary, or an early draft  work by an author or composer
  • personal papers or organisational archives; collections that have been created or accumulated by an individual, family or organisation in the course of their   lives, work and  activities
  • groups of primarily unpublished records that have been assembled by an individual or organisation.

Manuscripts may be handwritten, typescript or electronic, and may include all kinds of textual and other formats of records not usually made available to the public.

Manuscripts collections contain varied formats of material, both physical and digital. A lifetime personal archive may include correspondence written by hand or email, diaries and blogs, photographs, research notes, literary, artistic or musical sketches and drafts, designs, leaflets and ephemera, maps, objects, and annotated copies of published writings. Manuscript collections often contain sound and audio-visual material, such as speeches, performance recordings and copies of broadcasts.  

While not all items in a manuscripts collection may be unique, archival collections have historical or evidential value in the content of individual items, as well as in the context and relationships existing between them. The integrity of the collection as a whole and the order in which it was created, used and organised is as important as the items within it. Manuscript collections are thus collected and described in terms of their provenance, creation, context and the relationships between constituent parts, rather than as individual items.  As part of the acquisition process the Library seeks lists, indexes and descriptions of the content from creators and donors when possible. These are made available online as finding aids, to assist users to identify and access the content within a collection.


One of the earliest manuscripts acquired by the Library was the handwritten journal of Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour, purchased at a London auction at the direction of Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in 1923. Chronologically, the earliest manuscripts in the Library’s collections are fragments of medieval liturgy acquired in formed collections. However, the greatest strength of the collection dates from the 1890s onwards, reflecting Australia’s development as a nation. They range from the earliest writings of Europeans voyaging to Australia, through to the papers of Eddie Koiki Mabo and the legal team in the cases which resulted in customary native title to land being recognised in Australian law; up to recent, substantially digital, archives such as those of the former Greens leader Bob Brown. James Cook’s Endeavour journal and the Mabo papers were the first Australian collections to be inscribed on UNESCO’s international register for the Memory of the World in 2001.

The manuscripts collections, taken as a whole, reflect changing attitudes to the creation, acquisition and significance of archives as significant sources of documentary heritage. Increasing online availability of the catalogue records, finding aids and other descriptive lists for manuscripts collections has exposed the value and significance of these collections for research.

As writing has been transformed in the digital world the nature of personal and organisational records is rapidly changing, leading to new challenges for individuals and organisations in maintaining and preserving archival collections. This has led to the Library receiving increased offers of both paper-based and electronic records and needing to address the challenges of complex digital archiving.

While the Library endeavours to collect strategically across a wide range of social, intellectual, political, scientific and cultural activity to build representation, depth and strengths for research, collecting archives and manuscripts is necessarily opportunistic and reactive in this environment.

Collecting intent

The Library’s predominant focus is on collecting manuscripts and archives that document Australian life, people, culture, creativity, events and social change. Based on the priorities set out in the principles, the Library focuses on collecting the archives of:

  • Australians of national significance, living in Australia or expatriate
  • non-governmental organisations of influence, especially those with national coordination or peak body responsibilities
  • people or organisations with a focus on issues of national interest, community activity or social change.

Most acquisitions are of the personal archives of individuals. These may be distinguished Australians or leaders in their field, whose papers capture their lifetime of activity, creative or intellectual endeavour. Papers of an individual, family or interest group are also collected when the archive contributes to long-term understanding of a subject, aspect of social life, or topic of national interest. 

The Library has always collected manuscripts documenting historical movements, contested history or events of a national character, such as maritime discovery, European settlement, the gold rushes, immigration and cultural diversity, and continues to do so when retrospective collections or items are discovered. 

The Library collects organisational records and the personal records of people active in social movements which have influenced and shaped Australian society, including on subjects such as immigration, environmental change, health issues and constitutional reform. The Library acquires materials that document Australia’s relations with other countries and its geographical region to support knowledge of Australia’s contribution or perspective in a global context. Existing collections are especially strong where Australia had colonial interests, such as in Papua New Guinea, or close cultural ties, like New Zealand, and across the history of exploration and continuing scientific and environmental endeavours in the Antarctic.

The Library endeavours to develop rich and diverse collections in specific subject areas to provide depth for research. The acquisition of related collections also enables sustained research. For example, the papers of Patrick White are complemented by those of composers Richard Meale and Peter Sculthorpe, directors Jim Sharman and Moffatt Oxenbould, artist Sir Sidney Nolan, actor Kate Fitzpatrick and his biographer David Marr.

The Library aspires to fill gaps in the collection, for example of culturally and linguistically diverse communities, non-Christian faiths and Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Library assesses the likely research value of collections on offer as historical evidence and for their ability to support extended research in different subject areas.


The Library takes into account the collecting interests of other Australian libraries and archives, giving consideration to collection strengths. The Library prefers to maintain the integrity of an archive, and not to split or disperse collections across institutions.

The strongest collaboration is with the state and territory libraries of Australia, recognising their interests and collection strengths, as well as the convenience for many users of records in having unique archival collections located closer to the communities in which they were created.  Local studies collections in public libraries, such as the ACT Heritage Library, and the archives in some regional universities are also important repositories for material relating to particular places.

The National Archives of Australia and the various state and territory archival authorities have statutory responsibilities for government records of their jurisdictions. Among Commonwealth collecting institutions, the Australian War Memorial is the principal repository for archives associated with Australian involvement in war and conflicts and the National Film and Sound Archive is an audiovisual archive which collects materials documenting the broadcast, film, television and music industries.  The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has strong collections, including audiovisual archives, about the cultures, traditions, languages and stories, past and present, of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

Several universities have large research archives. The Australian National University for example, has strengths in business archives, the records of employer associations and trade unions, Pacific research, as well as the records of individuals and organisations associated with the University. Other universities have prime ministerial libraries and research centres, such as the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at Curtin University, the first to be established, which as well as holding personal records of the Curtin family and copies of official records has also collected  the papers of his biographers, political associates and journalists of his era. 

The Library takes account of these responsibilities and refers offers to other institutions when manuscripts are more appropriately collected elsewhere. By agreement with the Australian National University, the National Library does not collect business records and encourages large organisations, which generate records on a huge scale, to preserve their own records.


Definition and scope

The Pictures Collection includes materials in a range of visual media which document Australian life.

The largest component of the collection is photography, in many formats ranging from the earliest daguerreotypes of the mid-19th century to contemporary digital image files, and from the later 20th century including colour photography. There are also prints in many media, including engravings, etchings, lithographs and woodcuts. Paintings, watercolours, drawings, sketchbooks, cartoons, posters, postcards and objects are among the many other formats represented. The range and variety of media in the collection is a reflection of visual culture and technology across Australian history. 


The Pictures Collection is a representative visual record of Australia’s people, places, events, history, society and culture. For the period up to the mid-nineteenth century the geographical focus of the collection encompassed European exploration of the South Pacific and Australia and the departure of convicts and settlers from Great Britain. The collection continues to record the activities of Australians overseas, especially in Papua New Guinea, the South Pacific, South-East Asia and Antarctica.

The Pictures Collection includes many significant works of art; however works are selected for their documentary, representational or historical content and research value, not primarily for their artistic merit or aesthetic significance.

The Pictures Collection is an aggregation of pictures selected and acquired individually and as collections, large and small; of materials accumulated and kept together because of their provenance (like the Ducie collection of First Fleet art); creator (the archive of photographer Wolfgang Sievers); or the interests of a collector (the Buckland collection relating to railways in Australia).

The collection’s major strengths in photography, prints, drawings and paintings were established through the acquisition of foundation collections assembled by E.A. Petherick (1847-1917), Sir John Ferguson (1881-1969) and Sir Rex Nan Kivell (1898-1977). The Nan Kivell collection also includes significant pictures relating to New Zealand, reflecting the collector’s birthplace and broader antipodean interest.

There are also vast numbers of visual materials within manuscripts collections, including photographs, sets and costume designs, sketch books and albums, and other art works. These resources are usually retained and managed within the manuscript collection which provides their context and meaning. The Library also commissions photographs which support the Oral History and Folklore Collection, such as portrait photographs of interviewees and performance photographs.

Collecting intent

The Library collects pictures of significant Australians as well as individuals and groups representative of different occupational, social or cultural experience, and other pictures focusing on Australian social and cultural life. The Library collects selectively, and prefers pictures that represent their subject matter with accuracy and detail, which can be dated and the people and places in them identified; or that typify phenomena best documented visually. The Library selectively collects works by professional artists and photographers of national significance whose work is documentary in nature. Some priority is given to acquiring pictures which complement other collecting areas, such as ephemera, manuscripts, oral history and folklore. 

Most works acquired are representational, documenting major themes, events and social or environmental changes in Australia. Non-representational works may be acquired when they:

  • 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
  • represent the viewpoints or perspectives of significant groups within Australian society
  • have been central to an event or public debate or cultural identity.

The Library holds historic collections showing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and other Indigenous people and communities, as seen through European eyes, and continues to acquire these. The Library now gives priority to acquiring contemporary visual documentation created by Australian Indigenous photographers or artists of their communities, people, places, culture and society. 

Strategic collecting of historic and contemporary pictures builds on strengths and fills in gaps in particular subject areas, to represent different perspectives on topics such as migration and diverse social life, industry and technology, the natural and built environment, environmental change, religion, travel, leisure, the arts, political and public life.

The Library also acquires, highly selectively, large archives or collections from individual creators, such as photographer Jeff Carter, or organisations, like the Fairfax archive of glass plate negatives, 1890-1948.


The Library recognises the collecting interests of other commonwealth and state institutions, such as the Australian War Memorial’s  collections relating to Australian participation in war and conflicts; and the interest of the National Film and Sound Archive in posters, stills and other visual material documenting Australian film, sound and broadcasting activities. The Library has considerable strengths in pictures of ships and shipping up to the early twentieth century, but the Australian National Maritime Museum is now the major collector of contemporary shipping images. The Library maintains a close relationship with the National Portrait Gallery and lending agreements with other cultural institutions. The Library works very closely with National and State Libraries Australasia to address collecting and collection management issues for our extensive pictures collections.

Oral History and Folklore

Definition and scope

The Library’s oral history and folklore collections contain interviews with Australians which ensure their life stories, memories, perspectives and personal insights are captured. The collections are necessarily highly selective and primarily comprise audio recordings, although some video interviews are now included. There are 3 main components:

  • extended ‘whole of life’ biographical interviews with Australians who have achieved national prominence in a variety of fields
  • ‘social history’ interviews, recording the memories and experiences of people who share a background or experience – for example, ethnicity, occupation, living in a particular place, experiencing polio
  • folklore recordings which capture community cultural practices and traditions that reflect social, linguistic and ethnic diversity in Australia: through songs, music and dance, tales and stories, customs, beliefs, speech and other forms of cultural expression.

The oral history and folklore collections capture experiences that otherwise may not be recounted in written form; or document people, events or issues that may be marginalised or 'left out' of Australian history. The collections retain the sound recordings as the primary source, as these convey meaning through the sound of the voice, expression, silence and emotion, beyond the words themselves. Oral history and folklore recordings are undertaken by specialist interviewers, expert in their fields. Interviewees control access to their interviews and may impose access restrictions for a period of time until their deaths. This encourages interviewees to speak frankly and they may reveal information and opinions not otherwise on the public record.


Oral history activity in Australia proliferated with the availability of portable tape recorders in the 1950s. At first, from the mid-1950s, the Library acquired oral history recordings from pioneering collectors, such as Hazel de Berg. The Folklore collection began with the acquisition of significant formed collections, dating from the 1950s, most notably that of John Meredith.

In 1970 the Library began its own active interviewing program with distinguished Australians, with the objective of developing strengths in fields aligned with the Manuscripts collections and supplementing holdings of personal papers.  In the 1980s the Library’s program broadened to include social history and folklore, and expert interviewers and collectors were commissioned to record in the field.

The collections also include a small number of historical broadcasts, public addresses, occasional lectures, talks, conferences and seminar proceedings, including recordings of significant events at the Library. National Press Club lunch addresses were regularly recorded from the mid-1970s to 1996. The collection contains some 900 Press Club addresses, including some earlier recordings from the 1960s acquired with other collections of prime ministers Menzies and Gorton.

Some sound and audio-visual recordings are acquired as components of personal or organisational archives. They include copies of radio and television programs, taped speeches, poetry readings and performance recordings.

Collecting intent

The Library selectively records biographical interviews with distinguished Australians, often complementing other collections, such as Manuscripts and Pictures. The collection is strong in fields such as politics, public administration, the creative and performing arts, business, science, journalism, intellectual life, the environment and conservation.  In some cases, follow-up interviews are recorded at later stages of an individual’s life and career.

Social history projects interview a wide-ranging set of participants to give insights from multiple perspectives. Some projects have concentrated on specific periods and events, such as life in 1938 or the 2003 Canberra bushfires, or on the experiences of particular groups, for example, the unemployed, drovers, members of religious orders, migrants, and people who lived in Broken Hill. Commonwealth government departments sometimes fund the Library to undertake major social history projects around nationally significant issues, such as the Cultural Context of Unemployment (1985), the Australian Response to AIDS (1992), Bringing Them Home (1998) and The Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants (2009).

The Library collects folklore selectively, contracting folklorists to record people around Australia at their homes, in community places and at festivals. The Library aims to represent a breadth of traditions to provide depth of understanding and knowledge and support ongoing creativity. Holdings of traditional Australian music and song (sometimes called bush traditions) are strong and a significant amount of material has also been recorded with Indigenous Australians and culturally diverse communities. The Library focuses on vernacular and community traditions that are not well documented by the music and broadcasting industries.

Analogue to digital, with accompanying data

Obsolescence in formats and playback equipment has required the Library to convert its analogue recordings to digital, a program which has been almost completed. The digital copies have allowed the Library to develop an online audio delivery system. Digital audio, with accompanying metadata, is now the primary means of access.  As well as the primary audio recording, interviews are accompanied by time-pointed summaries and sometimes full transcriptions. This textual metadata is increasingly enabling refined searching of the content of interviews to support research and other uses of the interview content. A large proportion of openly accessible oral history and folklore audio is increasingly freely available online.


The Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection involves a high degree of collaboration. The collecting objectives and priorities of other organisations with large audio-visual collections are taken into account, including the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the Australian War Memorial, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Archives, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and state and territory libraries.

Other cultural institutions, government departments and community organisations have also partnered with the Library to support the commissioning of oral history interviews. The Library also participates as an industry partner in selected research funded by Australian Research Council grants which includes oral history interviews. The Library also supports and encourages societies, professional organisations and community groups to initiate their own oral history projects by providing guidance on approaches and advice on technical standards.