As a historian and librarian, hunting for primary sources is my favourite part of the job. A primary source is an authoritative, first-hand glimpse into the past and to hold such a source [carefully!] in your hands is a thrill and privilege. As a general rule, primary sources are created at the time by eyewitnesses or participants; that is, straight from “the horse’s mouth”. However, primary sources can also include records that are the first appearance in the historical record of original information about a person, event etc.

So what exactly is a primary source? The list is virtually endless. The examples below are just some of the primary sources you can access through the National Library of Australia and include:

  • Original documents - parish registers, passenger lists, ships' logs.
  • Manuscripts - letters, diaries.
  • Oral histories - interviews, speeches, audio recordings.
  • Images - photographs, paintings, artworks.
  • Newspapers, magazines and journals.
  • Law - legislation, case law.

Primary sources: So what can I find in the NLA collection?

You may think that the National Library of Australia, by virtue of its name, focusses on Australia and its history. Well, it does, to a certain extent. As per the Copyright Act 1968* and legislation regarding legal deposit, the NLA is required to collect material relating to Australia and its people. This basically means that any source written, illustrated, edited, published by Aussies, or with a link to Australia, is legally required to be collected by the NLA. From the NLA ‘About Us’ page:

“The Library’s role, as defined by the National Library Act 1960*, is to ensure that document resources of national significance relating to Australia and the Australian people, as well as significant non-Australian library materials, are collected, preserved and made accessible either through the Library itself or through collaborative arrangements with other libraries and information providers.”

* NB: National Library Act 1960 and the Copyright Act 1968 are primary sources and online versions of which are accessible via the NLA catalogue. There is even an Annotated Copyright Act for budding copyright lawyers to investigate.

From the NLA homepage you can access the myriad of research resources to get you started via ‘Using the Library’. Here you will find a portal to ‘Research tools and resources’, aka Research Heaven.

Published Guides and Bibliographies

Published guides and bibliographies about our collection are available onsite or online. They cover a wide variety of topics, such as Australian children’s books to 1980, the Farsi language collection, the Papers of Edward Koiki Mabo, Australian maps, and the NLA’s medieval manuscripts and oral history collections. 

Most of the NLA's published guides are listed on our Published Guides and Bibliographies page, and many of the published guides can be read online via Trove (such as the Guide to the Medieval Manuscripts Collection).

Published guides and bibliographies at the NLA

A selection of the published guides and bibliographies at the National Library.

Research Guides

The Research Guides page has a guide for almost every topic you could wish for. Family history, aerial photographs, eBooks, newspapers, standards, military history, languages, government and politics – for Australia and the world. Filter the list of guides by ‘topic’ to get yourself on the right track.

Research Guides at the National Library of Australia

Within each research guide there are links to online resources within the NLA and other libraries and organisations around the world, plus information on where to find, request, order or borrow the non-digitised material. Each research guide has a helpful introduction on what you can find and how to find it. But don’t panic if that doesn’t work as each page has a link to the most valuable person in every library, the Librarian – ‘Ask a Librarian’.


For family historians, students and those who just love a good browse, there are sources galore from within the researcher’s heaven that is Trove.

Trove is your gateway to Australian newspapers, government gazettes, journals, photographs, diaries, letters, maps and audio-visual material, to name a few. You can limit your search to ‘Available online’ or ‘In my libraries’.

I have been looking into the history of early Canberra. To date, my favourite Trove find is a four-page document written in 1931 by the British High Commissioner, Ernest Tristram Crutchley, titled, ‘Canberra: A private appreciation’. This absolute delight of a document is part of the Australian Joint Copying Project; 10,095 reels of microfilm containing five million primary sources to Australia from UK collections dating from 1560 to 1984 (and is in the process of being digitised for greater accessibility).

Crutchley, E.T. Canberra: A Private Appreciation (1931)

Crutchley, E.T. Canberra: A Private Appreciation (1931) From the collection of Papers of Ernest Tristram Crutchley (as filmed by the AJCP) [M1829-1830],


Lastly, but only in the sense that it is the last resource I shall talk about, rather than, that’s it: eResources.

Our eResources portal was recently relaunched, with a new look and with improved full-text searching across most of our databases. Many of our eResources can be accessed from home using your NLA library card (a limited number are only accessible in the NLA itself).

eResources portal

The eResources portal (found on the NLA homepage) links you to a myriad of primary and secondary source collections about an extensive range of subjects. You can start a full-text search by typing keywords into the search bar and then use the filters to refine your results, or you can browse through our databases by clicking on the Databases A-Z tab. 

eResources search bar

Via eResources you will have access to government reports, medical studies, a register of pre-1945 clothing in New South Wales, eight archives with primary sources relating to life in eighteenth-century London, immigration and convict registers and related documentation, the Australian Federal Police Database, issues of The Economist back to the first in 1843, the United Nations Treaty Collection, map collections, the Federal Court of Australia’s Native Title Infobase and much, much, much more.

Happy researching!