Manuscripts and rare books

Our Manuscripts and Rare Books Collection holds over 2,600 rare books, 12,800 manuscripts, 2,200 pamphlets and 1,700 serial titles (14,650 issues) of significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies. Items in the collection are selected on the basis of age, rarity, value or sensitivity of the material for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals.

rare books on library shelf

The collection is highly significant due to both its historic and research significance, and include the Sorry Books which are inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register; and the W E H Stanner papers.

The thousands of unpublished primary sources in the Manuscripts and Rare Books Collection range from single items such as reports and theses through to hundreds of boxes of personal or organisational papers, and include evidence on most of the crucial events, people and developments relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders throughout the twentieth century.

The collection is held in secure environmentally controlled storage facilities onsite at the AIATSIS building on Acton Peninsula in Canberra. The oldest books in the collection include L E Threlkeld’s The Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language (1850), James Fenton’s The History of Tasmania (1884) and Fredrick Kruger’s Album of Kings and Queens of Victoria (ca. 1890). 

You can visit the collection if you are located in or travelling to Canberra, or order copies of collection items for your own research. 

If you wish to access items from the Rare collections, you will need to request them at the reference desk.

Bibliographic details of all items in the collection are in our online catalogue. Rare books and serials are prefixed with RB or RS. Special procedures are followed by staff handling these items and visitors are required to use care when accessing them.

Visitors are not allowed to do their own copying of any items from the Rare collections (books, serials, pamphlets), however they can photograph material (no flash). Copying of these materials can only be carried out by library staff using special planar scanners to protect fragile materials from further deterioration.

Significance statement... the W E H Stanner manuscript collection

W E H Stanner is ‘one of Australia’s best known and most highly regarded anthropologists’ (Hinkson & Beckett, 2008). His vast archive is held by AIATSIS (MS 845 and MS 3752). It documents in rich and extensive detail all Stanner’s lifetime of achievements and associations as a field researcher, teacher, scholar, advisor and public policy advocate. Almost all relate to aspects of Indigenous Australian history and studies.

This signal highly prized collection also incorporates through its preserved research evidence great potential for scholarly re-use. The historical and research importance of the manuscripts of this eminent internationally renowned Australian, if anything upgraded because of their provenance and completeness, means they are of great significance. Indeed, as they are easily comparable with the nationally significant collections of anthropologists of Norman Tindale and Charles Mountford, the AIATSIS Stanner manuscripts too should be ranked as of national significance.

Michael Piggott
4 August 2014

Read the Whole AIATSIS Collection Statement of Significance by Significance International.

Last reviewed: 9 Jun 2016