Researching your ancestors' occupations

How to identify your ancestors' occupations and find more information their employment history.

State Library Victoria

Library catalogue

Search the Library catalogue to find theatre programmes, biographies, interviews, recordings, pictures and personal papers.

Try searching by the name of the performer or performance, a company name or a publication title and author. Or search for a selection of keywords i.e. cabaret Melbourne.

If you are interested in photographs or posters use the catalogue drop-down menu to limit your search to 'Pictures & photographs'. To find personal papers, use the 'Manuscripts' option on the catalogue drop-down menu.

The following resources may assist you with your research.


Some magazines specialised in theatrical news. We have compiled lists of these publications that are in State Library Victoria's La Trobe Collection. These lists are available below.  Alternately you can browse through titles by going to the subject listing -  Theater - Australia - Periodicals.

Generally these magazines are not indexed, so you will need to browse the time period relevant to your research. One rare Victorian theatre newspaper, The thespian: a journal of amusement (circa 1884-1886), is only held by the State Library of New South Wales.

The Periodicals Index references articles in a variety of Victorian magazines circa 1850s - 1930s. Look for references under the headings 'Theatre', 'Opera', 'Musicians', 'Singers', 'Woman singers', 'Woman playwrights', 'Woman producers' and 'Woman dancers'. You can find the index in the Arts Reading Room.


Indexes briefly list the contents of resources that are usually printed or on microfilm. Items that are indexed include things like interviews and obituaries.

Search the online Australiana index for references to performers in magazines, books and newspapers and our in-house biographical files. Search for a reference under the family name of the person.

Also find references to performers on our Biographical index. It is not available online but you will find it on microfiche in the Library's Newspapers & Family History Rooms. Among the names you will find listed are Melbourne pianist, Percy Grainger, living statue Pansy 'La Milo' Montague, and University of Melbourne professor and conductor, George Marshall-Hall.

sample index card (percy)

For example, this index entry indicates that there is an article about Percy Grainger (featuring a portrait) in an issue of New Idea from July 1907, pages 506 and 507.

Theatre programmes

If you are interested in looking at theatre programmes, start by searching the catalogue using the name of the performer. For example, type in robyn archer or barry humphries. To limit your search add the words theatre programme to the search box.

Example image of search for theatre programmes

Only some of our theatre programme catalogue records include the names of the performers who appear in programmes. This means searching our catalogue by performer's name may not locate all relevant programmes. To find more programmes, use newspaper reports and reviews to find the names of productions that a performer appeared in, then search our catalogue for name of production theatre programme.

Programmes are catalogued at file level rather than item level. This means that when you request a file you may find it contains a number of programmes and publicity material covering productions that were performed over a number of years.

Request files at the Ask A Librarian information desk, or phone 03 8664 7002. Files are delivered to our Heritage Collections Reading Room. Delivery takes 20-30 minutes, and you must order before 5.30pm.

A image showing the actor Lawrence Campbell - posing as many different characters

 Lawrence Campbell character impersonations. H2019.82/5

Research guides

For information on how to research Australian films, and Australian cast and crew, please go to our Film research and cinema studies research guide.

Our Magic & magicians research guide will help you to find out more about these entertaining performers.

For more information on theatre companies, venues and performances, please go to our Theatre and performance in Victoria research guide.

Colour advertising card for a play called The Naked Truth

 Opera House, George Darrell's great emotional play The naked truth. H2000.180/33

Newspaper articles

Newspapers can be an excellent source of information on peformers, theatres, performances and reviews.

A range of Victorian newspapers from the years 1803-1954 are available on the Trove Digitised Newspaper database. Search for newspaper articles relating to an artist, a gallery or an exhibition. When searching Trove, try searching for a number of keywords i.e. Melbourne vaudeville or try enclosing a name or  phrase in quotation marks i.e. "Gladys Moncrieff" or "musical revue"

Table talk

Some specific newspapers and magazines have significant arts coverage.

Table Talk was a magazine that was published in Melbourne from 1885 to 1939. It has been digitised and made available online on Trove. 

The magazine specialised in theatre, painting, music and all the arts and has a regular Art & Artists column.

Newspaper article reporting on a new show at the Tivoli theatre.

New Tivoli Show, The Age, 20 June 1942. p. 8.

If the newspaper isn't on Trove you may need to explore the collections held in the State Library's Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms.

Newspaper databases

Our Library subscribes to a wide range of current and historic Australian and international newspapers databases. They are available in the Library and many can be accessed offsite by Victorian residents who are registered State Library members.

More information can be found in our Newspapers research guides.

Online resources

On stage

On Stage is the newsletter published by Theatre Heritage Australia Inc. It contains a wealth of theatrical information including articles and obituaries for specific performers.

On the web site look for past issues under the heading, On stage magazine.

The contents of the newsletters can also be searched online through the Victorian History Library at Prahran Mechanics' Institute.

  • Go to Prahran Mechanics' Institute home page and select catalogue.
  • Search by title, on stage, as a phrase.
  • You will see a number of entries displaying holdings of the newsletter from 1999.
  • When you click on an entry you will see a listing of main contents from each issue.
  • You can search the lists using the find facility on your computer. (Press the Ctrl F or Cmd F buttons.)

Theatre Heritage Australia Inc's website includes more biographies and photographs of performers.