To celebrate Library and Information Week, Librarian Adria Castellucci lets us in on some of the Australian Museum Research Library’s best kept secrets.

1. The museum has a library!

Capturing Nature book
Capturing Nature archive photography book by Vanessa Finney appearing in the Australian Museum library and reading room Image: Nick Langley
© Australian Museum

The Australian Museum Research Library exists to support research and exhibitions in our specialist subject areas of natural history and cultural collections. While people love libraries and museums, they don’t often realise that one might exist inside the other.

Unlike other parts of the Museum that members of the public are familiar with, the Library is open by appointment only. However, if you walk up the sweeping glass staircase to level 3, you’ll be able to peek into our Reading Room, and check out some rare books or archival material on display in the foyer.

2. We are one of the oldest libraries in Australia

Our Library has been around in one form or another, since the first decade of the Australian Museum’s existence. The first reference to a library was made in the minutes of 8 June, 1836:

That Members of the General Committee be requested to furnish a List of such books upon Natural History as they possess which may be required for reference [...] That a Bookcase may be provided for such Works on Scientific Subjects as may be required for the use of the Museum

This makes us the second oldest library in Australia!

By 1850, the bookshelves were overflowing the boardroom; today, with over 120,000 volumes in our collection, we are one of the largest natural history resources in Australia.

AMS514/VA180_8 Anthropologists Frederick McCarthy and Elsie Bramell, 1933.

Anthropologists Frederick McCarthy & Elsie Bramell, 1933. A bookshelf filled with Library books can be seen in the background.

Image: Museum Archives
© Australian Museum Archives

3. The oldest books in our collection are older than Shakespeare

Most of the rare books in the AM Library’s collection were published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but a handful are much older. The oldest book in the Library, Libri de piscibus marinis, was published between 1553 and 1555 – nearly a decade before William Shakespeare was born.

Another book, Icones Animalium, was published in 1560. Its author, Conrad Gesner, was attempting to publish an encyclopedia of every animal known to exist. Due to sixteenth century fieldwork practices (aka. “word of mouth”), it also includes such fantastical beasts as a satyr and even a unicorn.

4. There’s a “UFO” in one of the books

Books as old as the ones in our collection can hold all sorts of secrets and hidden Easter eggs. One that we’re aware of is the supposed “UFO” in the 1557 book, Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon. This ‘chronicle of portents and prophecies’ is a chronology of strange and unusual events throughout history, with accompanying wacky woodcut illustrations (including more satyrs!)

One of them, meant to depict a comet flying over the Middle East in 1479, looks remarkably like an alien rocket ship – so much so that extra-terrestrial enthusiasts have even requested to view the book in person to find evidence of their existence.

Conrad Lycosthenes: Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, 1557.
A woodcut of a comet flying over Arabia that looks like a rocketship. From Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon ("Chronicle of Portents and Prophecies"), by Conrad Lycosthenes, 1557. Image: Maribel Rosales
© Australian Museum

5. We still use a card catalogue

When you want to find a book in your local library, you’d expect everything in their collection to be findable online, wouldn’t you? Well, in a library as old as ours, not everything has yet made its way into our digital records. While you can find a lot of what we hold on our online catalogue, we still rely on a card catalogue to find some of our older material.

In case you're not familiar with them, a card catalogue is like a cabinet filled with tiny drawers, each of them containing dozens of little paper cards with a book title, author, or subject written on it, which then refers you to another card to find the location of your book. If you aren't used to analogue searching, it can take a while to get your head around it!

6. Our main users are Museum Staff

As a special library with lots of rare and unique books, we get researchers from all over the world contacting us to use our collection. However, our main users are our staff right here at the Australian Museum. We love helping our colleagues with their research for scientific papers, exhibitions, marketing, and so much more. Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences using the library:

The AM librarians have an innate ability to identify the essence of my general requests (as distinct from specific book/journal enquiries), address the expressed need but also suggest areas into which I can expand my research.

“I’ve had so much help from the Australian Museum librarians who understand how important rare books or obscure publications from foreign museums are for our research. Through exchange of publications over many years, our library holds an incredible richness of rare publications. I often turn up with an obscure reference to a publication by a European museum. And lo and behold! the librarians can sort out the German language and within minutes find the publication!!

As an institution based on fact, it is vital and reassuring to know that we can easily, and quickly refer to our library resources, especially when media need to fact-check.

The Australian Museum Research Library is open by appointment on Mondays and Tuesdays. You can visit our displays on Level 3 of the Museum seven days a week. If you are interested in visiting the Library for your research, you can search our catalogue or email us at