Working as reference librarians in Australia's largest library we get enquiries about all sorts of things. Some ask about subjects and items that are unique and obscure, things that hold the interest of only a handful of people. Sometimes we are asked questions where even the enquirer doesn't expect us to have an answer.

One thing we regularly get asked, that can fit into both of these categories, is "does the Library collect car manuals?"

Mechanic working on the undercarriage of a motor car
Waikerie Motors - Ford service, ca. 1947,

The answer is yes, which surprises many people.

You may think we are a research library full of academic literature and dense books with complicated titles on history and government stuff right? Well yes, but we have much more. Under the legal deposit program we aim to collect a copy of every published work created in Australia, and that includes things such as popular fiction, school annuals, gossip magazines, sheet music, telephone books, car manuals and more.

The Library has a large collection of printed car service and repair manuals, owner handbooks and maintenance guides. Most of these would now be out of print and increasingly hard to find, but the car may still be on the road. They are available to view here in the Library building, or to be sent to a library near you to use via the interlibrary loan system.

While we don't have every manual for every car, a quick search of our catalogue can tell if we hold the manual for your pride and joy. You can do this by entering the make and model of your car, as well as terms such as "automobile maintenance and repairs", "handbooks", or "manuals".

Several car manuals spread out on a table
Selection of car manuals from the collection. Image: National Library of Australia

The oldest car manual we hold is for a 1919 Ford Model T one ton truck, Australasian edition for right hand drive. It is curiously arranged in the form of 125 questions and answers, starting with "What must be done before starting the car?"

Actually starting the car is not reached until question 11, while question 12 answers the equally important query "how is the car stopped?"

Australians have always been quick adopters of technologies. Importation of motor cars started with a trickle in 1900, and the first Australian made petrol car to be commercially sold soon followed in 1901. By 1920 there were over 75,000 registered motor vehicles across Australia. Now there are over 19 million.

Man inspecting a car in a factory assembly line
Andrew Chapman, Final vehicle inspection on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company, Broadmeadows, Victoria, 2, 2016.

Despite the fast spread of the motor car, the 1919 Ford manual is skeptical of the mechanical prowess of early car owners. It notes that "the great majority of cases have little or no practical experience with things mechanical", hence the importance of a good car manual. The manual claims that with good knowledge of the car, the owner (referred to as "he" throughout):

"is always master of the situation - he will maintain his car more economically - prolong its usefulness - and he will also derive more pleasure from it, for it is a truism that the more one knows about a thing the more one enjoys it."

In 2022, a number of creative works spanning various disciplines came out of copyright and into the public domain. One such work is the 1951 Chevrolet passenger car specification manual, the accompaniment to the iconic General Motors Holden vehicle that collectors and enthusiasts alike still admire today.

These old manuals form a great historical record of motoring in Australia from the point of view of the motor car owners and operators. They are also a record of changing technology and the increasing spread of the motor car from curious indulgence to family essential.

Three people posing in an old motor car
Will Lee, with Jean Lee and Mrs Ash in a Ford motor vehicle, near San Remo, Victoria, ca. 1920,

Not only does the Library have an ever-growing print collection, we also have access to a vast collection of online resources. One particular online resource - the Haynes Manuals AllAccess database - addresses this growing demand. This is a subscription database that has repair and workshop manuals, maintenance guides, wiring diagrams and how-to-videos for a wide selection of cars and motorcycles. The makes and models range from Audi to Volvo, and from the classic 1964 Ford Mustang to the contemporary 2017 Holden Commodore.

You can access Haynes Manuals AllAccess by visiting our eResources portal and searching for this resource under the Browse eResources tab.

Snapshot of the homepage of Haynes AllAccess Manuals

Haynes AllAccess is particularly strong on models from the 1990s and early 2000s. These may not be in the "classic" category yet, but many are still lovingly maintained by owners with repair manuals now well out of print and very hard to find. 

My first car, a 1982 model Mazda 323, is there. I got such a long life out of that car, thanks in some part to always having the manual in the glove box. But if you still have a need for it, the repair manual for this and many other cars and motorcycles are now accessible online from home and all you need is a National Library card.

Mazda 323 manual in Haynes AllAccess database
Snapshot of the Ford Laser/Mazda 323 repair manual in Haynes AllAccess Manuals

This is a good example of how the National Library is not just for the serious researcher or historian; we have a vast array of material that covers the interests and stories of all Australians.

So if you have a burning question, no matter how obscure, feel free to ask a librarian. The answer might surprise you.