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Researching a town or suburb: Getting started

Are you looking to learn more about the town or suburb you live in, grew up in, or that your family and ancestors called home? This guide is intended to introduce you to the main resources available at the State Library of South Australia.

Traditional Owners

South Australia was home to thousands of generations of people before Colonisation in 1836.

If you are unsure of the Traditional Owners of the land you live on, explore one of these maps, or enter the name of your town in the Austlang database.

More sources relating to Aboriginal History in South Australia can be found on this guide.


Memorial Arch, Brighton, 1926. B 3884

The State Library receives the majority of its photographic collection by donation.

Because of this, we may have many photographs depicting your town or suburb, or few. It is therefore advisable to start your search broadly, and add more keywords to narrow your results if necessary.

For example a keyword search for photographs depicting Brighton may return too many results, so you may narrow your results by searching on Brighton and Jetty.

Head to this guide for a step by step introduction to searching for photographs in our collection.

Almanacs and Directories

Almanacs and directories list the names of businesses and residents in a town or suburb.

Scrutiny can help determine changes to street names and numbers over time and an approximation of when a building or residence was first built or occupied. 

Our Almanacs and Directories library guide provides an overview of the resources available onsite, and acts as a platform for viewing online versions of South Australian directories (1864-1973). 

Film and sound

Whilst less likely, you may find relevant information in our collections of film and sound, for example in the form of home movies or oral histories.

Oral histories document the past by asking questions of people who have lived experience of a particular time period, place, occupation, or event. You may find some that include descriptions of day to day life in your town or suburb during a particular time. 

Film footage may only show brief scenes of the place you are researching, but these may portray an event or point in time that has not been captured in other parts of the collection. 

To see if we hold anything relevant, enter your town or suburb as a keyword search in our Classic Catalogue, and select Film & Sound from the 'Search in the' drop-down menu. 

Written accounts

Many towns and suburbs are the subject of published histories and/or unpublished written accounts, and the State Library is a great source of these!

A keyword search may be the best way to find these, but if there are a lot of resources, or your town name returns too many irrelevant results, a subject search will be your best option. As an example: 

subject search on 'Brighton S A History' returns a small number of results, some of which are comprehensive accounts of the suburb's history.

A keyword search in our Classic Catalogue for 'Brighton History' will produce a much larger pool of results, including books written about schools, churches, businesses, clubs or prominent families and individuals in the Brighton area. (But also results for Brighton in Victoria and England.) 

Try both methods and see what returns the most relevant results for your information need. If there aren't any results with these two methods... you may need to try the name of your town or suburb as a keyword in our Classic catalogue with no additional search terms. 

You may also broaden your results by searching on the name of the relevant Council or Region, eg. 'Holdfast Bay S A.'

Tips: When conducting a subject search use the pattern Town name S A History. When conducting a keyword search, if your location has more than one word in it, put them in quotes, eg. 'Light's Pass'. 

Heritage surveys

Institution, Brighton B 3721

Heritage surveys identify places of heritage significance and potential historic conservation areas.

Published surveys can be found online via the Department of Environment and Water website.

To find State Library holdings, conduct a keyword search using the name of the town or suburb, and the words heritage survey e.g. 'Brighton heritage survey'. 

Along with information about individual buildings, such surveys often include a brief history of the area, its development and inhabitants, as well as identifying further relevant historical resources. 

Maps and street directories

To search for maps of your town or suburb in the State Library's collection, go to our catalogue and conduct a Subject search.

Enter the name of your town or suburb in the search box, and then select 'Mapping' from the 'Search in the' dropdown menu.

Some of your results will be available to view online, whilst others will need to be viewed onsite at the State Library.

Digitised Hundreds Maps can be located via this index and State Records South Australia also has a collection of digitised Hundreds maps on their flickr page. (See Mapping sources for South Australian history for instructions on how to identify the Hundred that your town or suburb lies within).

Metropolitan reticulation plans, produced by the Hydraulic Engineer's Department in the 1920s, can be viewed online via the catalogue. These provide a snapshot of street names, suburb boundaries, and significant buildings. Find the appropriate map using this index, or conduct a keyword search, eg. 'Brighton reticulation'. 

Street directories are a great resource for researching the changes in a suburb over time. The State Library has digitised the 1936 Gregory's Street Directory in its entirety. Our full collection can be browsed on the catalogue, and retrieved from storage for access onsite. 

Brighton South Australia, 1964. 

Researching a place name

Cockburn, Rodney. South Australia : what's in a name?... 1990. 

The Manning Index of South Australian History contains references to newspaper stories for the years 1837 to 1937. One section lists references by 'place name' and includes information on the name's origin, as well as pointing to articles that describe a place's early milestones. 

Updated information is in Manning's place names of South Australia from Aaron Creek to Zion Hill, 2006 (also online, 2012). 

Locate further resources by searching 
Names, Geographical -- South Australia

Newspaper articles

Trove provides access to digitised newspapers in South Australia from 1836 until 1954.

It is an amazing source of local history information, but it is so vast it can be overwhelming, and you may need to conduct focussed searching to produce meaningful results.

An as example, a search for Brighton (narrowed to South Australia) finds more than 350,000 articles, even a narrower search on “Brighton Jetty” produces more than 2,000.

Adding further search terms, or narrowing to decades, years or categories of content may be needed to discover results relevant to your research.

You will find some good Help videos on Trove. This talk is all about searching newspapers, and watching the first 20 minutes or so should hold you in good stead.

South Australian newspapers published after 1954 are available to access onsite at the State Library, either in microfilm or hard copy. A list of South Australian newspapers organised by region, is available on our SA Newspapers guide.