Topic: The Importance of Keeping Archives (2009) by Debbie McCauley

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This speech looks at the role of archives within society, the two main principles of archival arrangement and the different types of archival repositories operating in Aotearoa. It was written by Debbie McCauley on 9 August 2009 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

Archives are records that are of lasting value to society and as such are worthy of preservation. Records document human activity and can be vital for providing an audit trail for evidential, research, accountability and legal reasons. They provide verification of transactions by government, business, organisations or individuals. Things like legal documents, minutes of meetings, correspondence including emails, plans, charts and maps can be preserved as archives as well as personal records such as letters, diaries, wills, house deeds, birth certificates, and photographs. 

Aotearoa’s most well known record is our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi (Tiriti o Waitangi) which forms an integral part of our national identity. Preserved and studied by researchers it provides evidence of our uniqueness as a country and as individuals. As Sanderson (2007) explains, ‘The content of our archives influences future historical study and our understanding of where we have come from and, therefore, who we are’ (p.183).

The archives housed within this building chronicle our city’s development, heritage and collective memory from the first iwi, missionaries, traders and settlers in this area, right through to the present day. Decades of work have already gone into these collections and together they form our collective memory, testament to the shaping of our identity. Knowledge of our city, buildings, communities, businesses, families and individuals would be much poorer without records detailing their lives and history.

It can be crucial to conserve records for the benefit of our society as a whole. This is primarily due to their evidential nature which proved to be key when Tauranga iwi sought help from the local archives in the 1990’s. They were preparing their grievance cases as part of their application to the Waitangi Tribunal. Over this time staff at the archives noticed changes occurring with Māori researchers:

They were more confident as researchers. They were less angry. They had been able to process the evidence they had discovered in the library into published reports, which were then fed back into the library’s holdings thus forming a body of information for future workers to build on ... .The other changes ... were the proliferation of family reunions for which stories and whakapapa were collected; again, these compilations’ were fed back into the library, completing a cycle of research. (Smith, 2005, p. 7)

It can be seen from this instance that it is not good enough just to have archives; they must be kept so that they are accessible to researchers. Many records are unique and irreplaceable. If identifying information is not kept or they are damaged or destroyed they are then lost to society forever. This brings us to the two main principles of archival arrangement designed to uphold the integrity of records: provenance and original order.

Firstly, an archivist must appraise records and decide which have continuing value. For those deemed worthy of preservation steps will be taken to physically preserve and adequately store them. Most importantly, the archivist will capture contextual metadata for that record including its management and use. This typically includes, when it was created, where, it’s purpose, creator, and function, who used it, a content description, when the archive received it and from whom, where and how it is be classified within the existing system, any links to other records and its format, be it paper, electronic or any other medium. In doing this archivists ‘preserve the evidential value of the archive, thereby allowing users to understand how the archive was originally created and used’ (Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, 2007, p. 10).

Provenance simply means that records are not intermingled with other records but kept together as a separate collection under their creator’s name, whether that is an individual or organisation. Intermingling can mean losing the context and origin of the records. For example, let’s assume that our archives receive a collection from a local photographer consisting of correspondence, diaries, photographs and magazine and newspaper articles. To preserve provenance we would physically keep it all together under the photographer’s name, but create finding aids that would allow the items to be located either through the creators name or through other metadata discussed earlier.

Let’s make another assumption that the photographer has organised their records in date order. When this material is added to the archive we would need to preserve this original order, that is to say, the date order in which the photographer kept them. As McKemmish states: ‘The principle of original order involves keeping records in the order in which they were accumulated as they were created, maintained or used, and not rearranging them according to some imposed subject, numerical, chronological or other order’ (p. 11). Original order preserves the research methods that the person has used, the way they worked and therefore the collective meaning of their records. This can allow future researchers to gain an understanding of the relationships and interactions between the documents. There may be research notes or letters which could explain the actions of the records creator and these must all be kept together. If dispersed, the records meaning, and therefore value, can be rendered worthless.

Our city archives are just one of many different types of organisations collecting records throughout Aotearoa. Although we are a collecting archive, there are many organisations that keep in-house archives of records generated by their own activities. These include businesses like the Fletcher Challenge Archives; religious groups such as the Ratana Archives, iwi archives, local government archives, universities such as the University of Waikato, museums, media organisations like Television New Zealand, special interest groups, the armed forces, historical societies and schools.

Our largest and perhaps most well known repository of public archives is Wellington’s Archives New Zealand (Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga). Other collecting archives you may be familiar with include Auckland War Memorial Museum Library (Te Pataka Matapuna), the Hocken Library (Uare Taoka Hākena), the New Zealand Film Archive (Ngā Kaitiaki o Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua), the Sound Archives (Ngā Taonga Kōrero) and the Alexander Turnbull Library. One of our other local collecting archives includes the historic Athenree Homestead in nearby Katikati.



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McKemmish, S. (2005). Traces: Document, record, archive, archives. In S. McKemmish, M. Piggott, B. Reed & F. Upward (Eds.), Archives: Recordkeeping in society (pp. 1-16). Wagga Wagga, Australia: Charles Sturt University.

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Wareham, E. (2002, May). ‘Our own identity, our own taonga, our own self coming back’: Indigenous voices in New Zealand record-keeping. Archivaria, 52, 26-46.

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