Researching your ancestors' occupations

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

Company records

Confirm the name of the company

The holdings of archived business records can vary greatly from company to company. Records may include meeting minutes, general correspondence, account records, social material, personal papers, photographs and administrative files. Not all companies will have archived staff lists and in many cases, records may no longer exist.

When searching for staff records relating to a specific business it helps to know:

  • its correct name
  • its location
  • the period in which it operated
  • the type of business (such as manufacturing, retail, transport)

Start by searching through historic directories and telephone directories to identify the exact name and address of the business. If you search through these publications over a period of years, you should also be able to determine how long the business operated.

The State Library Victoria holds copies of historic metropolitan and regional post office and telephone directories which will help you to locate the name and address of a business. For detailed information on these collections, please go to the Directories page of our Researching your Victorian ancestors research guide.

Finding an archive of records

If the business is still active, we recommend that you contact the company to see if records have been archived onsite or whether they have been deposited in a repository such as a library, university or government archive.

If the company has closed, you need to verify whether it's records have survived and if so, where they have been archived. This is more likely to have happened for larger companies - unfortunately in the case of smaller companies, few records will have survived.

The following resources may help you to determine if company records or to find other useful information. Begin by searching for the name of the business or key personnel.

State Library Victoria

Library catalogue

Search the Library catalogue for the name of a company or business. You might find that we hold a published history of the organisation, copies of annual reports, a staff magazine, or images.

Bruce Batt preparing D2 hollow cathode lamp bases, Varian Techtron, 1974. Photographer Wolfgang Sievers.
This work is in copyright. H2000.195/248


The State Library holds a number of significant business archives which are an important resource for researching business history in Victoria, Australia and internationally.

Search our catalogue for the name of the company and  use the catalogue drop-down menu to limit your search to 'Manuscripts'.

Many of the items in this collection have descriptive lists or finding aids, See the catalogue record for the archive of White's Shoes, 1870-2012.
The catalogue record includes a link to a Descriptive list for this collection (see below), which lists the contents of the archive - giving you an idea of the type of records held.

Image of the descriptive list for Whites shoe company

White's Shoes. Descriptive list.

Trove - archive collections

Search the Trove Diaries, letters and archives collection to locate material from special collections. This search option looks specifically at organisational archives, business records, photographs etc, and will list the name of the archive where the records are held.

Once you locate a relevant record, you will need to contact the archive regarding access to their records.

Here's an entry from Trove listing several archival collections for the Bryant and May match company

Image of results from the Trove database showing results of a search for Bryant and May match company

Bryant and May results. Trove

University of Melbourne Archives

Try searching the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) - one of Australia’s largest non-government research archives.
It's business collection include the records of wholesalers and retailers, factories and foundries, solicitors and architects, along with the records of some of Australia’s largest mining companies.
The following record summarises one of the collections held in the archive - the McPherson Family Business.

Image of a search result showing the archival holdings of McPherson's family business

McPherson's family business and subsidiary company records 1892-1987

Companies in Australia

For detailed information on researching Australian companies, please go to our Companies in Australia research guide. Here you will find sources of historical information, company profiles and financial details.

Newspaper articles

A range of Victorian newspapers from the years 1803-1954 are available on the Trove Digitised Newspaper database. Search for newspaper articles and advertisements relating to a business.

Try searching for the name of a business or firm i.e."General Motors Holden" or the name of a company and it's location i.e. "Braeside Shirt Factory" Richmond. When searching Trove, try searching for a number of keywords ie. General Motors Holden or the name of the companyand it's location - "Braeside Shirt Factory" Richmond. Be sure to enclose a phrase in quotation marks i.e. "Marfleet and Weight" to get the best results. You can further refine you results by selecting a date range, illustrated newspapers etc.

Article referring to new sales manager of general motors

Leading footballer now Sales Manager of General Motors. The Herald. 27 May 1946, p. 12.

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

Newspaper databases

Our Library subscribes to a wide range of current and historic Australian and international newspaper 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.


Public Record Office Victoria

The Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) is the government records archive of the state of Victoria and is the custodian of many, but not all, government records. Many records remain with the relevant agency, some may be transferred to another agency and others will have been destroyed.

Please contact PROV for more information on their holdings.

Coles Myer Archive



One of the largest collections in the State Library Victoria is the Coles Myer archive which consists of approximately one linear kilometre of company documents, accounts, reports, correspondence, minutes and catalogues. Detailed information on this collection can be found in our Coles Myer archive research guide.

Coles staff journals from 1928-1986 are now available online. They include company news as well as staff social events, engagements and weddings. 

Guide to Australian Business Records

The Guide to Australian business records can be used to find information on many existing and defunct Victorian companies. Search by the company name or keyword to retrieve a list of known resources, including depositories of archives, histories and other publications. 

Image of a result  from the guide to Australian business records showing the results for the Geelong and Melbourne railway company

Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company (c. 1853 - 1860)