All religions must be tolerated… for every man must get to heaven in his own way.

The above quote has been questionably attributed to the Greek philosopher Epictectus, but I chose to use it as an introductory text as it describes the broad purpose of the diverse collection of religious and spiritual works held at the State Library Victoria – they are for everyone no matter what path you travel.

Figure of man dead in bed, family group grieving at beside, a skeletal figure with manacles cowering on left as an angel bears the man's soul up into the clouds.
Death, ca. 1838. Sketch by William Strutt; H92.188

Our collection has its basis in the colonial library established in Melbourne in the 1860s, and reveals the strength of 19th century British Empire contact with different world religions, and the scholarly publication and translation that often resulted from the expansion of empire. The developments of the industrial revolution and trade also drove new publications. Today, the collection holds over 30,000 titles including historical, sociological, archaeological and cultural works on religion and spirituality.

Looking towards Hindu temple with men going to and from from the temple.
Kedarnath Temple Against Snow Covered Mountains, Uttarakhand [ca.1900 – ca.1930]; H92.350/711

Most named religions will be represented in the State Library collection by a variety of introductory texts in English and versions of their central writings that are the focus of the religion. The nature of these core writings varies enormously, with some cultures having oral traditions. The central “texts” for religions or spiritualities with an oral tradition are radically different to those of the Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. Randall Prior, for example, commented on this in relation to South Pacific culture:

The plain fact is that South Pacific cultures are oral cultures, for which the producing of material in written form is culturally alien. 1

A good local example is the beliefs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which are passed down through oral histories and represented in ceremonies and cultural practices.

Book cover Religious change and indigenous peoples : the making of religious identities / Helena Onnudottir and Adam Possamai, Bryan S. Turner. (2013)

Searching the collection

Some of the collected religious texts held at the library have specific names and these can be used to search the Library’s online catalogue. The Qu’ran, the New Testament and the Tripitaka are key works of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, and these titles can be used to start a search in the catalogue to explore what is held in the collection. Keep in mind, however, that many versions of these texts, especially old versions, can now also be found on the Internet and you can contact us for assistance if you have search difficulties.

If you are exploring an unfamiliar religion or culture you can start by entering the name of the religion and the word introduction and this will often produce a number of useful books providing overviews of the origins and development of a religious movement, including biographies of key figures – many which might be available as ebooks to read online from home if you are a Victorian library member. A quick search of the Internet, even the Wikipedia, can also provide useful information that may help your search on the catalogue.

You can see some examples of available ebooks below:

Book cover for Encyclopedia of religion [electronic resource] / Lindsay Jones, editor in chief. (2005)
Book cover for A brief Introduction to Jainism and Sikhism / updated and revised by Tim Dowley ; general editor, Christopher Partridge. (2018)
Book cover for Truth and fiction in The Da Vinci code [electronic resource] : a historian reveals what we really know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine / Bart D. Ehrman. (2004)
Book cover for 
The woman who raised the Buddha : the extraordinary life of Mahaprajapati / Wendy Garling ; foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama. (2021)

The library has a range of databases of online articles that can be accessed by Victorians registered at the State Library. Most of the general databases such as JSTOR, Proquest and Gale Academic OneFile contain a mixed range of articles on religion and are certainly worth exploring. You can, of course, also just do a simpler search from the State Library catalogue by altering the search type from Everything Except Articles to Articles and this will bring up a mixed collection of newspaper and journal articles.

View of catalogue search box and filters on the State Library Victoria homepage - with zoroastrian as sample search term.

If you are specifically looking to drill down for core articles on religion, then you can go to our A-Z database list, click on ProQuest Social Sciences, then select the ProQuest Religion sub-database that provides the core material. Articles about most recognised religions are collected and you will also find material on shamans and many other non-traditional spiritual, pagan, and native faith movements and groups.

We also have many books (including ebooks) on alternative religions:

Book cover of Nordic Neoshamanisms / edited by Siv Ellen Kraft, Trude Fonneland, and James R. Lewis (2015)
Book cover of Spirit matters [electronic resource] : occult beliefs, alternative religions, and the crisis of faith in Victorian Britain / J. Jeffrey Franklin. (2018)
Book cover of 
Wicca : history, belief, and community in modern pagan witchcraft / Ethan Doyle White. (2016)

Newspapers can also be a good source if you are looking for information about religious leaders, religious events, festivals or announcements. You can travel back to the 19th century (or earlier) through newspapers, for example The Times (London) or other international papers in the State Library’s electronic database collections. You can also visit the National Library’s Trove database where all the State Libraries have contributed selections of their historic collections of the city dailies and regional newspapers.

View of article with headline "The Dalai Lama Enthroned: Pageantry within the palace"
The Times (London), 24 Feb 1940, p 5

As you can see, the range of material in our collection is very broad and varied. If you need any assistance with your research, remember you can always Ask a Librarian and we’ll do our best to help.

  1. Prior, R, 2011, ‘Orality: the not-so-silent issue in mission theology‘, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol 35, no 3, p 144

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