For more than 20 years the team at Archives New Zealand have been working to bring their vast holdings of historical records and cultural taonga online through the process of digitisation.

“Our institutions hold a wealth of knowledge that traditionally has only been available to those who visit in person,” explains Rebekah Rogers, Digitisation Manager at Archives New Zealand

“If you can imagine a shelf that is filled with every format imaginable – it could be a bound volume, it could be loose sheet, it could be a small ticket from a raffle, all the way through to large maps and plans that are over five metres wide; there are slides, negatives – you name it, we’ve got it!” 

With more than seven million items in their holdings, Archives New Zealand are slowly but surely creating digital access by capturing the collection for now and into the future. 

Melanie Lovell-Smith, Claire Viskovic and Rebekah Rodgers from Archives NZ
Melanie Lovell-Smith, Claire Viskovic and Rebekah Rodgers from Archives New Zealand © Nicola Edmonds

Digitisation on demand, a user-pays model where people can request the digitisation of an item from the archives, has been operating since 2017. However the last three years have seen an unprecedented increase in demand. “When Covid hit, Archives NZ, like the rest of New Zealand, was closed,” Rebekah says. “Being unable to come into our reading rooms boosted public interest in digitisation. Our requests doubled after lockdown – from 942 in 2019-2020 to over 2,100 in 2020-2021 – and it hasn’t slowed down since. It was a real shift in how people access material.” 

Archives New Zealand operates under the Public Records Act, which means everything in the open access collection is made available, regardless of its format. “If you want to see the physical record, you can often still come in to our offices to see that, even if it has been digitised,” Rebekah explains. “Some people want to see the provenance for themselves; they want to see their taonga. What we’re really creating is an access surrogate of the physical record. The original record is our preservation master.

“Most of the material we hold is from the 1840s onwards and the bulk of digitisation work is for material from before the 1920s, which was when open access started. For anything newer than that we start hitting restrictions around copyright or privacy. We digitise very little from after WWII. But because the records are so old, our work requires a lot of care – we can’t just feed material into machines!” 

While Archives New Zealand has offical records from Government agencies, their holdings are complemented by what’s stored at the National Library and within the Alexander Turnbull collection, including anything from sound recordings to objects, manuscripts, photographs, maps and paintings. 

With such a wide range of heritage collections, proper preservation is critical. Within the purpose-built National Library building there are different collections stores. “We have a 2ºC freezer where film negatives are stored and a 13ºC one set at 34% humidity for glass plate negatives,” explains Claire Viskovic, Senior Imaging Technician. “We have racks for framed artworks and caravan drawers for larger scale items – things that are really huge or need to be rolled. There’s every possible format you could think of, really! It’s all carefully controlled to keep the collections safe.”  

"At the moment there’s a real push to digitise the collections of sound recordings that are on magnetic tape,” Claire continues. “They’re extremely vulnerable and as they degrade they can’t be used. If we don’t digitise them now we’ll have missed an opportunity and they’ll be gone.”

“Originally, when we began digitising over 20 years ago, a lot of it was about providing access to people who wanted a copy of a picture for a publication or for their family history. But as technology has become more reliable and we can achieve a better quality result, digitisation is now also about keeping a digital copy in perpetuity in addition to the physical material.” 

Also at the National Library, Digitisation Advisor Melanie Lovell-Smith works with the mind-boggling volume of newspapers that have been published in New Zealand since 1839. This content has gradually been made available online since 2001 via the Papers Past website. “We’ve got over eight million pages on Papers Past, but that’s only a tiny percentage of what has been published,” Melanie says. 

“We digitise from microfilm, which was the standard way of preserving newspapers for decades. Because they’re captured on microfilm it’s quite an efficient way of scanning. Initially the website only provided pictures of the old newspaper pages, which weren’t searchable but at least people could look at them. As technology evolved the site gained text search capability.

“Today we use OCR (optical character recognition) for the text. You get an image of the page, and the text is converted into data, so if you do a word search on Papers Past the search term will be highlighted.” 

With so much material available, how does the team decide what warrants digital preservation? "We have broad plans for what we want to achieve over the next five to 10 years, which varies depending on the format,” Melanie says. “We aim to provide a range of newspapers from across the country and try to capture material that will provide the most value at this point in time.”

Today’s digital collections are not just created from electronic versions of physical historic records – there is now born digital material to consider, too.

“One of our other digital collections teams works on harvesting websites and social media for content that would otherwise just be lost over time,” Claire explains. “They look for stuff that really exemplifies the Kiwi lifestyle and provides a snapshot of social history; things that are important to New Zealanders and that people may want to research in the future."

But even accessing born digital material poses challenges. “The team has a lot of vintage technology to make sure they can access collections, as things might be stored on someone’s old computer or a floppy disk.”

It takes a team to preserve history. While digitisation involves a lot of work in itself, there is much that goes on behind the scenes to catalogue and safeguard the physical records first. “We stand on the shoulders of the people who’ve done a whole lot of work in collecting and preserving the physical items,” Melanie says. “We couldn’t digitise things if that hadn’t happened.”

“A big push for us is taking archives to the people, and digitisation is the key factor to make that possible,” Rebekah adds. “We’re essentially democratising access. No matter where you are or who you are, you can access your records – because these belong to New Zealanders. We’re just the keepers.” 

Read more from this AA Directions issue while you're here: 

Reported by Jo Percival for our Autumn 2023 issue

New! Our navigation has changed.

Use this button to access the site content.

 |  Learn more