Sources and resources

Explore the photographic collections of archives and libraries

Photographs make a wonderful contribution to a family history, but not all of us are lucky enough to have a large collection of family photos. Fortunately, we can use the collections of archives and libraries to supplement any photographs that we may have.

It is possible that an archive or library may hold photographs of your family, particularly if they are local to the areas in which they lived. The chances are fairly slim, but don’t let that stop you from trying!

Do not despair if you cannot find family photographs, as there are others that can be useful in your research. Photographs of places where your ancestors may have lived, for example, are a great way to get a feel for what their lives were like.

You should also look for photographs of unrelated people who lived around the same times and localities, as they can provide information about your ancestors’ lifestyle, such as the hairstyles and clothing styles that were in trend at the time or the types of homes they may have lived in. Examining photographs of people with similar occupations may also provide useful insights. Just be aware that there would be differences depending upon income and cultural group, and that a single photograph is not evidence of a lifestyle.

Many archives and libraries hold collections of photographs. Here a just a few Australian examples:

The Pictures collection of the National Library of Australia focuses on Australian people, places and events, from early European exploration of the South Pacific to contemporary events. Search their catalogue using the advanced search option and limit the format option to ‘picture’. Type in your search term and date range. If the image has been digitised you should be able to view it online.

It is difficult for me to choose a highlight from such a large collection, but perhaps you might be interested in their collection of photographs by John Mulligan, if you are researching Australia in the 1960s. For my own research, I found some great photographs about the early tobacco industry in Australia.

State Libraries also have large photographic collections. The NSW State Library, for example, holds over two million photographs documenting the lives of past and present Australians, their society and buildings and landscapes. They also have digital images of artwork, some of which cover the period before photography was available. Search their catalogue and limit the format option to ‘picture’. The catalogue contains information about whether you can view an image online or in person.

My favourite photographs in the NSW State Library are the Holtermann Collection of the goldfields in the 1870s, but you should also check out the First Fleet artists and their collections about the immigration experience.

Schoolboys and teachers, Hill End 1870s, Holtermann Collection, Mitchell Library (NSW State Library) (Identifier YOKBGLV1)

Archives also collect photographs, although their collections are often smaller than the libraries and they may not have as many available online. The NSW State Archives, for example, has thousands of photographs produced by government agencies. Some of their photographs are published on Flickr and some are available online through the NSW State Library catalogue.

My favourites in the NSW State Archives are photographs around Sydney Harbour (NSW), particularly the Industrial School ships, the Vernon and Sobraon.

Family history libraries and archives may also hold photographs. The archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists, for example, has over 40,000 photographs. Unlike the libraries mentioned above, their collection is not limited to Australia and you will find photographs of places such as England, Ireland and Scotland. You can search the catalogue using the advanced search option and limit the results by setting the classification to ‘photographs’. The society’s photographs are not available to view online, but you can order copies through the catalogue or make arrangements to view them in person.

My favourite photo in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists is this one (below), but other favourites can be viewed on the Highlights page.

Daguerreotype c1847, probably John Marsh, Harrison collection in the Society of Australian Genealogists (being accessioned)

Don’t forget to explore online archives too. The Internet Archive, for example, has over four million images. You can also extract copies of photographs from the digital books that they hold. This website will probably be of more use for generic photographs of places, or activities such as logging or carpentry.

Using the images

One of the benefits of using photographs from a library collection is that they have been catalogued by a professional librarian and the catalogue entry provides all the information you need for a decent source citation and caption. The quality of catalogue entries for archives is variable and may not provide you with sufficient details.

Libraries and archives usually do not provide specific copyright information for each photograph. It is up to you as the user to determine whether copyright applies and to comply with the applicable regulations. In Australia, photographs taken before 1955 are out of copyright. However, copyright is not an issue if you are just using the photograph for research purposes and do not publish it. Putting a photograph online is usually considered publishing.

Even if there are no copyright restrictions, a library or archive may still request that you acknowledge them if you use a photograph from their collection. See, for example, this page from the NSW State Library about copyright and acknowledgements.