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History of the Australian and New Zealand Collections

A brief guide to the strengths of our collections from and about Australia and New Zealand, compiled by our experts.

The early collections

The British Library's foundation collections (British Collections 1501-1800), principally those of Sir Joseph Banks, contain numerous works crucial for the study of the voyages of commercial and scientific exploration of the Pacific from Tasman to Cook and Banks himself. Notable among these is Banks's own copy of The voyage of Governor Philip to Botany Bay (1789) (shelfmark: C.47.i.10), bound in kangaroo skin. There is also a copy of Bougainville's Voyage autour du monde (1771) (shelfmark: C.28.l.10), which has on its first map Captain Cook's autograph tracing of his own voyage from 1765 to 1771. The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library displays one of Cook's journals (1775). Works dating from the early days of the convict colony at Botany Bay are also well represented in the Library including a number of very scarce and important titles.

Koala bears

'Koala bears', c1845, from The Mammals of Australia, BL shelfmark 462*.e.4. © The British Library Board

The nineteenth century

In the turbulent early years of the 19th century, New South Wales was beginning to evolve from a penal settlement into an emerging nation under the mutiny-plagued William Bligh (Governor 1805-1808) and Lachlan Macquarie. The Rum rebellion against Bligh in Sydney in 1808 is documented in Proceedings of a general court-martial.for the trial of Lieut.- Col. Geo. Johnston (1811) (shelfmark: 957.e.7). During the "golden age of Macquarie" (Governor of New South Wales, 1810-1821) there was rapid development in the colony and the Library's holdings for that period include some of the finest Australian books ever published. The Library also holds works relating to the early history of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and publications promoting emigration to the Australian colonies dating from the 1820s. The settlement of New Zealand by Europeans also dates from the 1820s-1830s and copies of the first booklets printed there in 1835, translations from the Bible into Maori, are included among the Library's early New Zealand collections. Throughout the nineteenth century there were voyages of discovery inland and around the coasts of both countries and the Library is strong in its holdings of the numerous accounts that were published.

In the 19th century, Australian and New Zealand novels, poetry and historical and descriptive monographs were frequently published or distributed in the United Kingdom and consequently acquired by legal deposit. The poems of Henry Kendall (shelfmark: and the first edition of Marcus Clarke's classic For the term of his natural life (shelfmark: 12638.i.4) are examples of major works that were received in this manner. The first Australian novel in book form, Quintus Servinton (Hobart, 1830-31) (shelfmark: 838.c.25), was however acquired by purchase in 1839. From the 1860s, F.F.Bailliere, a Melbourne publisher and bookseller, supplied the Library with Australian and New Zealand newspapers and printed books. Included among the latter were such rare works as the first book printed in Australia, the 1802 New South Wales General Standing Orders (shelfmark: C.48.d.12) (one of three known copies) and The Eureka Stockade (1855) (shelfmark: 8154.b.35) by Raffaello Carboni, very scarce even when acquired in 1864. The Library also acquired from Bailliere many of the superbly produced and rare topographical plate books published in Australia and New Zealand in the nineteenth century.

Official publications

In 1883, international exchanges of official publications were set up with Tasmania and New Zealand. Similar exchanges followed within a few years with Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, the Commonwealth of Australia, and Western Australia. Exchanges with South Australia and the Northern Territory are more recent. Before the exchange agreements were started official publications were received either by purchase or donation. Exchanges have continued, though with some limitations, until the present day. The Library's holdings of Australian and New Zealand official publications are very extensive and are particularly strong in material from the federal governments and from Western Australia. Official publications are generally read in the Social Sciences Reading Room.

The twentieth century

There was no legislation to cover British deposit of material published in Australia and New Zealand, although a number of publishers did have United Kingdom offices or agencies, thus enabling them to participate in legal deposit. Many works by leading authors were consequently acquired in this fashion throughout the early 20th century. It was not until the 1950s that the Library began to reinstate the encyclopaedic acquisition strategy that had been prevalent in the 19th century. Only then were funds and staff available to enable the Library to retrospectively purchase items produced in Australia and New Zealand earlier in the century by the 'nationalist' publishers such as the Sydney Bulletin. For example, two classic texts published at the turn of the century: Henry Lawson's While the billy boils (shelfmark: 12655.aa.37) and Joseph Furphy's Such is life (shelfmark: were not acquired until 1957 and 1983 respectively. In addition to retrospective purchasing from second-hand booksellers the selection of current material to be purchased was also systematised mid-century. As fewer Australian and New Zealand publishers now distribute their works in the United Kingdom, it is this method by which most publications from the Antipodes arrive in the British Library today.

Current selection procedures

We continue to receive some Australian and New Zealand material by legal deposit, where publishers have United Kingdom distributors, or a United Kingdom edition is published. Our official publications exchanges and commitment to serial subscriptions are ongoing. Monograph selection now is the domain of our Australian and New Zealand curator, who works to maintain a scholarly collection representative of the diversity of contemporary Australian, New Zealand and wider Pacific cultures.

'Three paddles from New Zealand'

'Three paddles from New Zealand', 1769, from A Collection of Drawings made in the Countries visited by Captain Cook in his First Voyage, 1768-1771, BL shelfmark Add. 23920 © The British Library Board


 Some notable early Australian and New Zealand imprints in the British Library

Thomas E. Wells
Michael Howe, the last and worst of the Bush Rangers of Van Diemen's Land. Narrative of the chief atrocities committed by this great murderer and his associates during a period of six years in Van Diemen's Land. From authentic sources of information.
Hobart Town : Andrew Bent, [1818]
(The first unofficial book printed in Tasmania and one of only two known copies)
Shelfmark: C.58.d.12 (3)

Barron Field
First fruits of Australian poetry
Sydney : Printed for private distribution, 1819
(The first book of poetry published in Australia)
Shelfmark: C.59.i.15

Henry Savery
Quintus Servinton: a tale, founded upon incidents of real occurrence
3 vol. Hobart Town : Henry Melville, 1830, 31
(The first Australian novel in book form)
Shelfmark: 838.c.25

Ko nga pukapuka o Paora te Apotoro ki te hunga o Epeha, o Piripai [Translated by William Williams, Bishop of Waiapu, and others]
Paihia: He mea ta I te Perehi o nga Mihanere o te Hahi o Ingarani, 1835
(Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians in Maori. The first book printed at Paihia in New
Shelfmark: C.23.a.15 (2)

Right Hon. Sir George Grey
Ko nga Moteatea, me nga Hakirara o nga Maori. He mea Kohikohi mai na Sir George Grey (Poems, traditions, and chaunts of the Maoris)
Wellington : Printed by Robert Stokes, 1853
Shelfmark: 12431.k.13

Victoria illustrated. From drawings by S.T.Gill.
Melbourne & Sydney: Sands & Kenny, 1857
Shelfmark: 1789.a.31


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