Researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages at the State Library of Queensland.

Did you know there are over 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups in Queensland? State Library of Queensland supports communities in the revival, documentation and preservation of traditional languages. We acknowledge language heritage and knowledge always remain with the Traditional Owners, Elders, language custodians and other community members of the respective language nation.

This post will explore some of the items in the State Library collections as well as provide some handy tips for finding materials that can help with your language journey.


    The State Library collections include historical and original items as well as published materials and audio-visual articles pertaining to Queensland history. Within the collections are a broad range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics including language, culture, history and genealogy. The collections are physically housed in Brisbane at the State Library of Queensland, South Bank; however, there are on-line materials, including exhibitions and other documents available for personal and academic research.

    State Library materials pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages fall into the following categories:

    Web-based Materials

    The State Library website has range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language materials available on-line for community access. A good starting point is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages webpages; particularly the Interactive Queensland Language Resources Map which identifies languages by name and location with direct hyperlinks to collection items. There is also a handy Tool Kit for using new media and technologies to create community resources as well as sample word lists from a number of Queensland languages.

    Published Materials

    Published materials include books, journals/serials, newspapers, rare books and ephemera. In terms of language materials, topics may include:

    • Dictionaries on specific Queensland languages, e.g. Dharambul, the Language of Rockhampton, Angela Terrill (2002) J 499.15 TER
    • Linguistic surveys, e.g. Linguistic Survey of South-Eastern Queensland, Nils Homer (1983) J 499.15 HOL
    • Historical texts that include linguistic material, e.g. Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, Constance Campbell Petrie (1932) G 994.302092 1992

    Original Materials

    Original Materials refer to the historically rich and diverse range of material such as business records, diaries and correspondence, photographs, artworks and film, original maps and plans, artefacts and decorative art, oral histories and digital stories. Of particular interest for language research are materials collected by pastoralists, Government Officers, Missionaries and other individuals. Such materials including wordlists, vocabularies and other language knowledge dates back to the 1820’s and gives an historical insight into how language was spoken and documented at the time of contact.

    • Pastoral / Station Records – many pastoral properties had Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander workers and may have collected information on people on the property as well as language and culture. For example, Lammermoor Station via Hughenden was selected in 1863 by Robert Christison who documented over 500 words from the Dalleburra Aboriginal workers on the property.
    • Journals, Diaries, notebooks, etc. – a range of individuals documented their daily lives in Queensland, including references to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, their culture and lifestyle. Language material may have been recorded in these primary sources. For example, Roth and Meston who were Chief Protectors of Aborigines in Queensland in the 1897-1920’s period collated a significant amount of material on the lives, customs and beliefs of the people under their jurisdiction. The Meston Papers contain notebooks, press cuttings and journal entries on Aboriginal words and phrases from communities and towns across Queensland. Similarly, the Margaret Lawrie Collection records Torres Strait Islander genealogical, cultural and linguistic heritage gathered during the period 1964-1973.

      Audio/Visual Materials

      The State Library of Queensland holds a range of historical and contemporary audio-visual materials that relate to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander languages.

      Note many recordings of language are held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra.

      • Sound Recordings, Tapes, CDs, etc. of language, including songs, stories and linguistic recordings. For example, 7630 Gunggari Language Audio Cassettes is a collection of five cassette recordings that were made in 1974 with several Gunggari language speakers in the Mitchell area.
      • DVDs, Films, etc. on cultural topics either speaking in language or speaking about language in communities. For example, 27464 Retold: A retelling of stories and songs from Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait by Margaret Lawrie (2010) is a State Library project that involved Torres Strait Islander community members retelling the stories that were collected during 1964-1973 and providing additional cultural information to complement the original stories.

      Vimeo Channel

      The State Library of Queensland has a number of Indigenous language related digital stories on Vimeo:

      Researching the Collections at the State Library of Queensland

      The State Library catalogue enables individuals to research the collections of Original Materials, Published Materials, Audio-Visual and Digital items relating to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, languages and histories.

      The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections webpages provides snapshot of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures through the photographs, manuscripts, oral histories and digital stories collections of the John Oxley Library. 

      Some specific tools to help you with research include:

      One Search: this is the catalogue that searches State Library Collections for print and electronic books and journals, manuscripts, videos, images, sound recordings and items from digital collections.

      Further details:


      Library Membership Card: membership provides community members with increased access to the State Library of Queensland's collections and associated services.

      Further details:


      Tags: State Library Collection items relating to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people are gradually being ‘tagged’ with AIATSIS language codes to make it easier for research. For example, a One Search request on ‘Djirbal’ will identify two items in the collections; however, there may be several different spellings for languages, hence the ‘tags’ for these items will include the AIATSIS Language Code y123 which will identify fifteen items in the collections. Once logged in your State Library membership, you can also use 'tags' to help you return to items in the collections. 

      Interactive Languages Map: One of the best starting points for researching languages is the State Library's interactive languages map which lists over 125 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and dialects by location and name. Clicking on the marker will bring up a snapshot of the language, where it was spoken as well as some sample words and links to items in the State Library collections. Currently, State Library is exploring ways that community members can add their language stories to the map - by sharing words or memories of language as well as community-created content and resources. 

      State Library hopes these ideas and resources can assist you in your language research.



      Desmond Crump

      Indigenous Languages Coordinator, State Library of Queensland


      State Library Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Webpages

      Spoken: Celebrating Queensland languages exhibition

      Spoken Virtual Tour

      Jarjum Stories exhibition

      Minya Birran: What next for Indigenous Languages?



      Cover image: State Library language resources from North Queensland.

      "A Vocabulary of the language of the Aborigines of the Boonah District": Hardcastle (1930).

      Dharumbal, the language of Rockhampton, Australia. J 499.15 TER

      Retold: The story of Atmer Gelam, Storyteller Elimo Tapim. DVD 27464

      State Library Interactive Languages Map.


      References and Further Reading

      For full details on language resources in the State Library collections, visit One Search.

      Bell, J. (1994) Dictionary of the Gubbi-Gubbi and Butchulla languages, compiled with the assistance of Amanda SeedG 499.15321 1994

      Breen, J.G. (1990) Salvage Studies of Western Queensland Aboriginal LanguagesJ 499.15 bre

      Capell, A. (1963) Linguistic Survey of AustraliaQ 499.15 cap

      The Christison Family Papers and Lammermoor Station Records [TR1867].

      Curr, E. M. (1887) The Australian Race: its origins, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over that continentRBF 572.994 cur

      Edwards, R. (ed) (2003) Dictionary of Torres Strait languages. Q 499.1503 RAY

      Eseli, P. (1998) Eseli’s NotebookS 306.089 001

      Hardcastle, T.W. (1930) ‘A Vocabulary of the language of the Aborigines of the Boonah District’. VF 499.15 har

      Lawrie, M. The Margaret Lawrie Collection of Torres Straits MaterialsTR2082

      Holmer, N. (1983) Linguistic Survey of South-Eastern Queensland.  J 499.15 HOL

      Meston, A. (undated) Archibald Meston Papers Undated. OM64-17

      Roth, W. (1975) Reports to the Commissioner of Police and others, on Queensland Aboriginal peoples 1898-1903. (Microfilm) Material drawn from Queensland ethnography: bulletin, nos. 11-18 / by Walter E. Roth. FILM 0714

      Scragg, S.  Retold: A retelling of stories and songs from Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait by Margaret LawrieDVD 27464

      Sharpe, M. (2005) Grammar and texts of the Yugambeh-Bundjalung dialect chain in Eastern AustraliaQ 499.15 sha

      Sutton, P. (ed) (1974) Languages of Cape York: papers presented to the Linguistic Symposium, Part B, held in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Biennial General Meeting, May,1974.  G 499.15 1976

      Tindale, N. B. (1974) Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits and Proper Names.  Q 994.0049915 tin

      Watson, F. J. (1944) “Vocabularies of four representative tribes of South Eastern Queensland”; supplement to the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Queensland), No. 34, Vol XLVIII. REFJ 499.15 wat

      Watson, F. J. (1941) F J Watson Papers 1941 OM73-20


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