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Researching the Pacific: The Pacific Manuscripts Bureau

The State Library holds a superb collection of original documents, illustrations, photographs and books about the Pacific, but one of most heavily used resources is the the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau (PMB or PAMBU) collection, which provides access to copies of primary resources held in archives across the Pacific.

The collection includes European and indigenous contact histories, trading, missionaries, government administration, as well as photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries.

We have created a PAMBU Research Guide to help you get started with this vast resource. 

We asked Kari James, Executive Officer of the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, to answer some of your questions about the history, significance and future plans of PAMBU.

Indigenous people from Futuna What is PAMBU?

The Pacific Manuscripts Bureau was established at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1968 to make preservation copies of archival materials about the Pacific and to make them more accessible to researchers.

At the time, there were limited resources for archival institutions in the Pacific but there was a strong documentary presence, as colonial administrations, missionaries, traders and others documented the region. An agreement was formed between the ANU, the Mitchell Library (State Library of NSW), the University of Hawaii Library and the national libraries of Australia and New Zealand to list, copy and share primary documentation about the Pacific.

The Mitchell Librarian at the time, Gordon Richardson OBE, advocated strongly for prioritising the preservation of materials located in the islands, emphasising the threat to paper caused by the tropical climate. Since 1968, PAMBU has travelled throughout the Pacific region with a portable camera — first microfilm, now digital — to work with organisations and individuals who want to have their documentary heritage preserved and made accessible through our library network.

We now have 14 member libraries in 17 countries, including 13 Pacific Island countries.

What can researchers find in the PAMBU collections?

The PAMBU collecting policy is very broad, so researchers can find anything about the Pacific from photos and newspapers, to missionary diaries, registers of births, deaths and marriages and agricultural reports. Whaling logs and religious mission records make up about half the collection. The collections largely cover the 18th to the 21st century, with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries.

How are the records used?

Our collections are used for all sorts of purposes, from scholarly research to family history. Our linguistic records have been used in a number of language maintenance programs, and recently we have had a lot of interest from researchers who are using archives to rescue historical meteorological data for climate change modelling.

Can I use PAMBU at home?

Anyone with an internet connection can search the PAMBU catalogue, but you need to visit one of our member libraries to access our microfilms and to view the full-text digital items. Photo collections can be accessed from anywhere. If you’re not able to visit one of our member libraries, you may be able to arrange an inter-library loan from one of our members or purchase copies directly from PAMBU.

The majority of the material is available on microfilm. Are there plans to digitise the microfilm?

Between 1968 and 2014, PAMBU produced around 4000 microfilms. To digitise and make 4,000 reels available online would be a very expensive and time-consuming project.

With only one full-time staff member, this is well beyond our current resources. We set aside money each year to digitise a small selection of microfilms, but as climate change increases the threat to archival materials in the Pacific, we prefer to concentrate our limited resources on working with organisations and individuals to digitise collections that have no other copy and are still at risk.

What are the plans for the future?

We are committed to expanding access for readers in the Pacific, to preserve more indigenous collections and to work with collections that may assist with environmental sustainability and climate change. We will continue to provide advocacy for archives, libraries and heritage institutions in the Pacific and work to improve our engagement with the communities represented in these collections.

We are always happy to receive new project suggestions at

Don’t forget to check out our new PAMBU Research Guide.

collage of images from The Pacific Manuscripts Bureau