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About the Collection


The present work is limited to those papers of Sir Joseph Banks which are held in the Mitchell and Dixson collections at the State Library of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. These amount to approximately 10,000 manuscript pages and include correspondence, principally letters received, but also reports, invoices and accounts, journals, plus a small quantity of maps, charts and watercolours.

While many of these documents have been published in various works before, the collection is published here for the first time in facsimile, and extensively indexed.


During the course of this Project, the papers of Sir Joseph Banks have been arranged into 96 series, mindful of Banks' original and subsequently dispersed arrangement. These series have been grouped together under nineteen section headings.

The intention has been to reflect, as far as possible, the way the papers were used and accumulated by Banks during his lifetime.

It seems that Banks kept together letters he received within a given year, arranged alphabetically by correspondent's name. He often drafted his reply directly onto the letter received, this serving as his copy. These were usually bound together to form volumes, paginated in the top right hand corner, and provided with an index to the names of correspondents. It is difficult to determine how far this arrangement extended across Banks' entire archive as bound volumes have subsequently been disbound and the original collection of papers is now split and held in many different institutions around the world. For this reason it is not possible to replicate completely Banks' original arrangement in the papers held in the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries.

For the purposes of this Project, where many letters have been received by Banks from the same person, these have been treated separately as a series, and arranged chronologically.

The remaining letters received by Banks have been arranged alphabetically by correspondent's name. This practical arrangement approximates Banks' probable original arrangement.

Copies of letters written by Banks to other, often unnamed correspondents have been arranged chronologically.

Additionally, Banks maintained separate files of letters and other documents relating to particular subjects. Seemingly naturally occurring series with already assigned titles, such as 'Voluntiers, Instructions, Provisions for 2d. Voyage', 'Correspondence Bounty' and 'Letters and Papers relative to Capt. Bligh', occasionally occur in the collection. It is, however, no longer possible to determine definitively whether all such groupings were formed by Banks himself, by later owners such as Lord Brabourne, by the Library, or by the Government Printing Office during the preparation of Historical records of New South Wales. It has therefore been decided to retain these groupings and headings essentially undisturbed. The possibility is thereby acknowledged that the arrangement replicates Banks' own.


The Project has basically been about improving intellectual access. The greater searching capacity of the technology allows the papers, when comprehensively indexed, to be interrogated in a way not possible previously. It has also been an opportunity to experiment with the application of a new technology to archives and manuscripts collections. Most imaging projects to date have concentrated on printed material, or single items or treasures, rather than on interrelated accumulations of documents.

Access to documents relies on a combination of free text searching of background and other information provided, as well as subject indexing based on the content of documents.

Indexing entries are based mainly on ABN (Australian Bibliographic Network) authorities.

Indexing occurs at both the level of the series, and at the individual document level. Indexing takes a researcher to the relevant document or series of documents only, not to the page within a document where the subject is mentioned.

At the series level, indexing terms describe subjects common to all documents within the series. Document level indexing describes significant information unique to a particular document only and does not duplicate subject entries which occur at the series level.

The author of each document has been indexed. The recipient of a letter has been indexed only where the recipient is someone other than Banks. Banks is not indexed separately as either recipient or subject of a document. Having accumulated the papers during his lifetime he is, as the creator of the collection, regarded as being the subject of the collection as a whole.

All efforts have been made to identify the author of a document where this is not given, and to index the documents accordingly. Where this has not been possible, the author has been listed as unknown.

Banks has been indexed as author or co-author of a document even where his written contribution is only a small hastily written note. His habit of annotating letters received with the name of the correspondent, date of receipt and / or date of reply is not acknowledged as authorship.

Undated documents have been dated as accurately as possible on the basis of contextual information or internal evidence. Where this has not been possible documents have been listed as undated.

Principal subjects have been indexed for all documents, or series of documents. Some documents mention such a wide variety of subjects including plant species, people met, activities, publications, ships' names, and other information, that a complete listing has often been impossible. Many subjects have therefore been indexed collectively, for example, Plants - New South Wales.

In addition to the vagaries of 18th and 19th century spellings, Banks had his own peculiarities. For instance, he often misspelt the names of his friends and acquaintances, eg Bolton for Matthew Boulton, Clarke for Charles Clerke, Blythe for William Bligh. In all cases, the most commonly accepted form of the name has been used for indexing.

The spelling or naming of places is used as it occurs in the document being listed or described. The modern usage follows in brackets for the purposes of free text searching. Only the modern usage has been used as an indexing term.

The Endeavour journal

The journal kept by Joseph Banks on the Endeavour (1768-1771) has been treated differently to all other documents for the purposes of this Project. A full transcription has been provided for this journal only, in addition to facsimile reproduction. While in reality the entire journal is a single document, this Project has treated the journal as a series of separate documents, each daily entry representing a document.

Indexing of the journal relies solely on free text retrieval of the transcription, supplemented by extensive cross referencing of 18th and 19th century spellings and place names. These see and see also references for the entire Project are contained in a separate listing. It is recommended that researchers make a hard copy of this listing for their own reference.


The papers of Sir Joseph Banks at the State Library of New South Wales are held in the collections of both the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries, and have been acquired in many consignments over a period of more than 100 years

The Mitchell Library, opened in 1910, is based on David Scott Mitchell's personal collection of 60,000 books, and thousands of manuscripts, paintings, photographs and maps relating to Australia and the Pacific bequeathed to the nation in 1907. Today the collection comprises around 9,000 metres of manuscripts, over one million photographs and pictures, hundreds of thousands of maps and more than half a million printed items in diverse formats

The smaller personal collection of Sir William Dixson, covering the same collecting areas as Mitchell's and bequeathed to the state in 1952, constitutes the Dixson Library which opened to the public in 1959

When Banks died in 1820, he left behind a well organised archive which documented his influential career. The custodial history of the archive following Banks' death is confused. Most of it was eventually deposited in the British Museum, probably around 1873, only to be removed in 1880 by Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, later Lord Brabourne, a collateral descendant of Banks. The papers were returned to Brabourne who subsequently offered them for purchase to the British Museum for 250 pounds. When the Museum declined, the disbursement of the archive began with the sale of some of the papers in 1884

In that year the largest accession of the papers of Sir Joseph Banks now held in the collection of the Mitchell Library, was purchased from Lord Brabourne by Sir Saul Samuel, the Agent-General for New South Wales. This accession became known as the Brabourne collection

These papers did not come to the Library immediately. Many papers in the Brabourne collection were used in the compilation of the History of New South Wales from the records published by the New South Wales Government Printer. The first volume appeared in 1889. The papers were used again in the multi-volume Historical records of New South Wales, also issued by the Government Printer, from 1892. Publication of Historical records continued until 1901 though it seems the papers of Banks were used only in volumes 1 to 5 which include many transcriptions of his papers. Volume 5 was published in 1898

The papers were probably under the control of the Government Printer at this stage. In 1897, the Historical records project was re-housed in the Public Library of New South Wales. The Banks papers did not become part of the Library's collection until their official transfer to the Mitchell Library in 1910 when it opened as the Australiana collection within the Public Library, now the State Library of New South Wales. It is not known what happened to the papers from the cessation of the Historical records project in 1901, until 1910. Presumably they were simply stored in the Library building

Many of the papers in Banks' collection include footnotes and annotations made not by Banks but by the compilers of Historical records and History of New South Wales from the records. Often the word 'Copy' appears at the head of a document probably indicating it was to be transcribed for publication. Another common annotation reads 'For reference only' probably indicating the document was used for background information but not transcribed for publication

The so called Brabourne collection included a small number of the papers of Sarah Sophia Banks, Sir Joseph's sister, and of Lady Dorothea Banks, his wife. These relate to Banks and remain with his papers as part of his collection

Papers of Banks, including the Endeavour journal, were also included in the bequest of David Scott Mitchell. Mitchell had purchased these from other collectors who had acquired them, perhaps at several removes, from Brabourne

The next major acquisition of Banks papers was in 1929 through a Sotheby's auction in London when the Library paid 7,000 pounds for approximately half the quantity of papers purchased in 1884. Most of these papers were in volumes assembled at least by the Brabourne family, if not by Banks himself. However for reasons which are unknown, it was decided that some of the letters should be extracted from the volumes and these were acquired by the National Library of Australia

The Library continues to acquire Banks material when it becomes available. In the ensuing years, numerous smaller accessions have been made as estrays from the now far-flung Banks archive have appeared in auction sales and dealers' catalogues. The latest acquisitions by the Library have been a single letter written by Comte de Lauraguais to Banks, acquired in 1989 for $7,500, and most recently, a single letter written by George Caley to Banks, acquired in 1996 for $850

Louise Anemaat
May 1997