The problem with cutting archives access

A widely-praised move by the Government to teach New Zealanders more about their history has been followed by a decision to cut public access to the national archives.


Chief archivist Richard Foy’s recent move to limit reading room hours to just four a day from March at Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga seems completely incongruous with the Government’s intentions.

This will have a major impact upon researchers and scholars, particularly those coming to Wellington from elsewhere to consult the nation’s archives.

Government records held in the national archives are essential for the development of teaching resources for schools, and limiting access at this time seems totally at odds with the direction of the education curriculum.

What about the difficulties the afternoon closure of the reading rooms pose for Māori who are pursuing Treaty claims and who often have to travel from out of town? Where does this leave the Government’s responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi?

And for the family historian from the Bay of Plenty or Southland, part of a large group in society undertaking genealogical research, who wants to fly to Wellington and spend a day here doing research – will the expense be justified for such limited, 9am-1pm, access to the archives?

What about the impact of the reduced opening hours on the ability of contract historians and researchers to make a living?

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister of Education Chris Hipkins announced on September 12 that New Zealand histories will be taught as part of the curriculum in all schools and kura by 2022, it was a move welcomed by many.

A great many New Zealanders feel they lack sufficient knowledge about the country’s history, and are aware that this undermines their understanding of the origins of the society in which we live and how we got to where we are now. They want to know more about the past.

At the Stout Research Centre, we have visiting scholars from elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas who can only be in Wellington for a finite period and for whom a full day’s work in the archives is absolutely essential to make the most effective use of their limited time. A consequence may be that fewer overseas historians will undertake comparative research and global knowledge of New Zealand, and its history is reduced.

The cuts will also have a major and detrimental impact upon New Zealand historians who are absolutely reliant upon the archives for their source material. In a quantitatively assessed, output-driven, academic context we do not have the luxury of doubling the timeframe for research and publication.

The chief archivist claims that reading room users have declined in numbers, although we have not yet received the detailed evidence upon which this assertion is based. However, those who continue to use the reading rooms will be undertaking essential research for a variety of purposes including, for example, the current commissions and tribunals that are investigating the destructive actions of the state in the past, or to provide the historical background for contemporary policy initiatives.

Much more information is needed about the purposes and needs of those who require access to the reading rooms for research, rather than relying upon a simple statistic that tells us very little.

To effectively limit access to the nation’s archives and record of government in such a drastic way is a very poor decision. Digitisation of the nation’s records should not be at the cost of public access.

The chief archivist explained to me in a lengthy meeting that the curtailed opening time is to enable staff to work on digitisation, plan the move into a new building (anticipated for 2023/4) and work on the replacement for the repository’s search-and-find programme Archway.

The assumption appears to be that digital access will be a substitute for reading room access. But this is simply impossible. Only a tiny proportion of Archives New Zealand’s holdings have been digitised and, while these holdings are undoubtedly appreciated by those researching their family histories, they are not much use to specialist historical researchers. The sheer volume of Archives’ collections also means that many will never be digitised.

This decision was reached without appropriate consultation, and the New Zealand Historical Association and Archives and Records Association of New Zealand, among many others, have expressed deep concern about these changes.

The lack of appropriate consultation and the poor publicity indicate that the implementation of this policy must be delayed while full information is circulated to a wide number of organisations and associations. Only then would it be possible to make an informed decision.

It is possible that under-resourcing of the archives may be contributing to this ill-thought out decision. But a publicly-funded national archive should not restrict public access to the essential record of the activities of the state.

Associate Professor Anna Green is currently acting director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.

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