Donation to digitise the William McLennan Personal Papers

by Queensland Museum Library Staff

The William McLennan Personal Papers Collection, part of the State Collection held in the Queensland Museum Library, will soon be as free as a bird. Queensland Museum Network (QMN) has recently received a major donation to enable the conservation and digitisation of the William McLennan Personal Papers collection of ornithological field journals, letters and photographs which detail significant historic field work in Queensland.

The project will enable online access to 48 diaries, field notebooks and 200 pages of correspondence that record copious bird-watching observations in North Queensland. These sightings, recorded during 1906 and 1923, provide invaluable data regarding bird activity in the region that has only been accessible to-date by visiting the Queensland Museum Library in person.

Who is William McLennan?

Pl.28 (in D’Ombrain, E.A. ‘Obituary’, The Emu, vol.35, 1936, pp.291-293)

William Rae McLennan (1882-1935) was an ornithology enthusiast whose reliable observations earned the respect and employ from several key Australian ornithologists including Dr MacGillivray, H. L. White and Gregory M. Mathews. He also provided observational data for the preparation of Neville W. Cayley’s Cayley’s Book of Birds, which informed Cayley’s 1931 publication What Bird is That?.

McLennan’s collecting work included expeditions to Cape York Peninsula between 1909 and 1915 and Gulf of Carpentaria between 1915 and 1916[i], both of which are referenced within Mathews’ monumental 12-volume publication The Birds of Australia (1910-1927). Mathews even named a bird genus after him, declaring “[McLennan] who, for Dr MacGillivray and others, has done such good work as a collector.” [ii] Sadly, only one bird species from the genus named after McLennan survives today – the Geoffroyus geoffroyi maclennani commonly known as the Red-cheeked Parrot. 

Pl.437 (in Mathews, G.M. ‘Birds of Australia’, vol.9, Witherby & Co., London, 1921-22.)[iii]

The personal papers of McLennan also confirm he was a diligent record keeper and letter writer. There are more than 3,500 pages of observational notes in his diaries held in the Queensland Museum Library! They also reveal his friendships, with letters from his time overseas during World War One.

A flock of discoveries

Despite McLennan’s work being a century old, his findings continue to be of significant value to researchers today. A new paper by Patrick Webster and Henry Stoetzel[iv] in a 2021 edition of the Australian Field Ornithology journal has provided the first verified record of the Chestnut-backed Button-quail Turnix castanotus in Queensland and through the William McLennan Personal Papers collection, unearthed a similar sighting from 100 years prior that seems to have never been reported before.

As part of a project on major historical Brolga sites, the McLennan collection in the Queensland Museum Library has also recently been accessed by researchers Elinor Scambler, Mary Barram and co-authors. Thanks to McLennan’s diaries, they succeeded in identifying details of a significant roost from 1912 of approximately 1000 Brolgas in North West Queensland. Scambler, Barram and their co-authors are currently in the process of submitting their important findings for publication.

In addition to McLennan’s ornithological observations, his material reveals significant geographical, meteorological and social descriptions from the early 1900s. Imagine what else can be discovered from the wider availability of McLennan’s work thanks to this significant donation!

Online access to the collection

Thanks to the generous support of this donor, the William McLennan Personal Papers collection will be published on the newly launched QMN Research Portal later this year.

The QMN Research Portal is an exciting step towards being able to share detailed scientific and cultural work with a broad audience through digital assets. QMN will continue to improve and expand the Research Portal with the addition of more digital content like the William McLennan Personal Papers.


[ii] Mathews, G. M. Austral Avian Record, v.3(5), p.127, 27 December 1917.

[iii] Image source: