The National Library Bookshop will be closed for stocktake from Monday 28 to Wednesday 30 June. You can still shop online and enjoy a Covid safe visit to other parts of the Library. 

Ask a Librarian: now virtually everywhere!

Ask a Librarian: now virtually everywhere!
Same research help, more ways to get it: now find us on Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook
7 May 2014

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a girl detective. Always ready to detect clues, ask questions and follow hunches, I longed for mysteries to solve. The schoolgirl sleuth is often pictured in the act of enquiry - shining her flashlight into the darkness, brow furrowed, reflecting on the clues until the pieces fit together. I never unearthed any school holiday mysteries, but the thrill of the information hunt never left me. An inquiring mind helps me in my work every day.

Reader, I grew up to be a reference librarian at the National Library’s Ask a Librarian service. I’m a member of a crack team that unites information with the people who need it. When you send us a question, we won't just tell you the answer, we'll show you how to find it. Tell a person a fact, and they'll just have one fact. Help a person to research, and they'll be able to learn forever.

Our free Ask a Librarian service answers hundreds of questions each month from anyone who wants information about Australian topics or the Library’s vast collection. We can spend up to one hour researching the answer, but our well honed problem-solving skills and librarian radar lead us to relevant resources pretty quickly. I've included examples (with clues!) of the kind of questions that people send to us in the pictures below.

 "I'm looking for a knitting pattern from the 1950s..."

Smart cardigan in five sizes,The Australian Women's Weekly (29 July, 1953), page 35 (detail). Hand coloured.

There are lots of ways you can contact us. We're always on duty in the Library's reading rooms - come and have a chat about your research. Or if you have a quick question, phone us, Tweet it or post it on our Facebook page. The great thing about answering research questions via social media is that it can help other people who have a similar question.

  "For reasons that defy logic, I need to know the protagonist's name in the "Naked in the boot" (sic) by Gordon Clive Bleeck. Can you help?"

Cover of Nude in the boot [1954], by Australian author Gordon Clive Bleeck (1907-1971). The National Library has the only library copy in world. The tweeted research question was referred to us by @Austlit

If you have a vexing research mystery, fill in our online enquiry form. You can use the form to provide background information about where you've already searched, and exactly what you need to find out. I’ll search high and low for you, but the more information you can provide, the more focused my search will be.

 "Where can I find an Explanatory Memorandum?"

Bound volumes of Bills of the House of Representatives, Commonwealth of Australia.

And now our Ask a Librarian services have come to Wikipedia. If you're a Wikipedia editor who wants to improve any of 126 000 Australian-related articles by tracking down a reference, you can find a link to our Ask a Librarian service, and the equivalent service of other State libraries, on the Talk page of those articles.

Talk page (detail) of the Wikipedia article on Darwin, Northern Territory

Talk page (detail) of the Wikipedia article Darwin, Northern Territory, showing links to the Ask a Librarian service.

This exciting new trial - the first of its kind in the world - is provided by National and State Libraries Australiasia and supported by the editors of WikiProject Australia (with special thanks to user:99of9). Wikipedia editors know the importance of using reliable sources to improve articles, and that the most authoritative sources aren't always available online. Our Ask a Librarian team can help you uncover verifiable information, so you can have confidence in the references that underpin your article. Trying to track down some particularly elusive source material? We can help you add dimension and detail to your article by shining a light on Australia's cultural record in our unique collection items. 

By making the Ask a Librarian service more accessible to Wikipedia editors, we are helping to make authoritative information about Australia available to the world. You can read more information about the project on the WikiProject Australia/Ask a Librarian documentation page. We've already received some great questions from Wikipedians - the kind that really let us apply our trademark librarian rigor. We look forward to receiving many more, and seeing your articles flourish!

If you're a bit of an amateur sleuth yourself, why not register for a free Library card and log in to a wide range of licensed academic databases from home?


 "Did Gauguin visit Australia? What evidence is there?" An extract from a newspaper article, "Shipping arrivals. May 8" (9 May 1891) includes Gauguin's name highlighted in the passenger list

Seascape (detail) [19--]. nla.pic-an13724404  Shipping arrivals. May 8, The Sydney Morning Herald (May 9, 1891), page 8 (extract).

What do I love about providing the Ask a Librarian service? That I’ve helped someone who can’t visit the Library to access the same information as a person who’s in the reading room; that I’ve helped you find a way to work through a research puzzle; and that I’ve given you the tools to become a confident researcher in your own right. And once you become a fearless researcher, you’re more likely to happen upon serendipitous discoveries, which will prompt you to ask new research questions. When I answer your questions, whether they are big or small, I imagine you embarking on that journey.

Not sure where to start your research?  Stuck somewhere along the way?  Ask a Librarian.


[Edit: The Wikipedia newsletter The Signpost has published its own story about this project]

This post appears in our "Behind the scenes" blog. To subscribe to future blogposts in this blog add to your RSS reader. To subscribe to all National Library blogposts, use this link

Love this post!! You all do such an amazing job with Ask a Librarian, it's brilliant you'll be helping even more people by putting your detective skills to work for Wikipedia (and therefore the world)!!
Thank you, Lucy! When people ask us questions, we learn so much, too. It's mutually enriching. And we can't wait to help more Wikipedians - ricochets of knowledge!
When hurricanes struck, people took shelter in the courthouse. The schools weren't safe enough to be used as shelters.
Hello I'm an art historian from Melbourne. There is a portrait in the ANG entitled 'King Billy', 1898-92, by Girolamo Nerli. I was told be a Lecturer in Indigenous Art that there is a (racist) cartoon based on this image, but i have no other clues. Would you be able to help me search your picture collection please? Nerli apparently produced this work with a pair, another portrait of an Aboriginal woman, and he made a few versions of the pair, which were based on photographs. But the cartoon was different! I hope this makes sense. My phone number is 0430375002 Many thanks, Helen McDonald.
Hi Helen, Apologies for the late reply, as we have only just seen your question. It will be assigned to one of our Reference Librarians and we will get back to you by phone. Don't forget, you can always use the Ask a Librarian links on our web pages!
An impressive share! I've just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was conducting a little research on this. And he actually ordered me dinner simply because I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending the time to talk about this topic here on your site. Review my site <a href="">Paginaswebinteresantes</a>

Access all areas of your Library