Profile: Alexander Turnbull Library

Each month Hindsight will feature an interview with one of the memory institutions making our cultural heritage more accessible. Following last month’s profile of Digital New Zealand, in February we’re focusing on another part of the National Library of New Zealand: the Alexander Turnbull Library. Thanks to Mark Crookston for taking the time to answer these questions.


First, can you please give me some background on the Alexander Turnbull Library? How is it related to the National Library of New Zealand, in which it is located?

The Alexander Turnbull Library is the government-funded national documentary heritage library of New Zealand. It was established in 1918 after Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, one of those fascinating late Victorian/Edwardian colonial collectors, gifted his collection to the nation. The Turnbull Library collections and services were brought within the newly established National Library of New Zealand in 1965, and the National Library of New Zealand Act provided for the continuation of the Turnbull Library, and laid out its purposes, which continue today. They are:

  1. to preserve, protect, develop, and make accessible for all the people of New Zealand the collections of that library in perpetuity and in a manner consistent with their status as documentary heritage and tāonga; and
  2. to develop the research collections and the services of the Alexander Turnbull Library, particularly in the fields of New Zealand and Pacific studies and rare books; and
  3. to develop and maintain a comprehensive collection of documents relating to New Zealand and the people of New Zealand.

Here’s a photo of Alexander Turnbull. He was quite a handsome chap.

Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull

Weyde, van der, fl 1877-1902. Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull – Photograph taken by Van der Weyde. Ref: 1/2-032603-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

What types of items can be found in the ATL collections, and how were they acquired? In the case of donations and bequests, what criteria determine whether the library accepts or declines a gift?

The Turnbull Library collections consist of both published and unpublished items. The cornerstone of the published collections is the legal deposit framework in New Zealand, whereby the National Library receives copies of every publication in New Zealand, one of which forms part of the heritage published collections of the Turnbull Library. Recent digital legal deposit regulations have enabled the Library to add websites and web publications, including online music and video, to the collections. The library also continues Turnbull’s original tradition of collecting rare books.

The history of the archival collections of unpublished material is a more complicated matter. Like all archival collections, they have developed from a range of sources and been heavily influenced by various contextual factors at the time of collection, including available resources, availability of collection items, research trends, and the personalities of staff of the library at the time. What has stayed consistent through time is the intention to build collections that support research into New Zealand and the Pacific, primarily in the humanities and social sciences. This means the library maintains relationships with research communities to help determine research trends and understand the gaps in the national documentation. Some collection priorities have formed slowly over a period of time, while others have resulted from swift, targeted projects, designed to fill those identified gaps. For example, in the 1980s there was emphasis on building collections to support research into New Zealand businesses, the role of women in society, and the creation of the Archive of New Zealand Music. In the 1990s the oral history centre was created in response for more source material to support social research, and more recently the New Zealand Cartoon Archive was created.

Currently, the Turnbull Library has unpublished collections in the broad areas of manuscripts, photographs, maps, oral history, music, ephemera and drawings, paintings and prints. Collecting in these areas requires some subjective decision-making, based on as much objective information as is reasonably available. While all items are potentially significant to someone, we can’t archive everything, and we can’t predict future use — but we attempt to be well informed by having good relationships with research communities.

More information on Turnbull collections is available here, and more information about collecting priorities and principles can be found in our collections policy. However, please note that this policy is in the process of being updated to reflect the significant amount of collecting of born digital items we do today.

What portion of the ATL collections have been digitized? By contrast, what sorts of items are not listed in the catalogues, and why?

This is a difficult question to answer with any certainty. A collection of 4 physical photo albums can be described as either 1 or 4 items. However, if each album consists of 100 photos, resources will go into describing each photo as part of the digitisation process so as to improve discoverability. This means 4 physical items could have an equivalence of 400 digitised items in the collection. So comparing collection percentages is fraught with tricky numbers. The short answer is that, while there are many thousands of digitised items online, this is still just a very small proportion of the breadth and depth of the entire Turnbull Library collections.

The only items not listed in the catalogues are the oral history collections. This is because the metadata about these collections may contain some sensitive personal information and there are some challenges around filtering which information is publicly available and which is not. I’m happy to report that this challenge has been addressed and we expect the appropriate metadata about the oral history collections to be listed in the catalogue in the coming months.

William Williams playing the flute with a broom holding the music in place

William Williams playing the flute with a broom holding the music in place, Old Shebang, Cuba Street, Wellington, 1883. Williams, Edgar Richard, 1891-1983 :Negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, colour transparencies, monochrome prints, photographic ephemera. Ref: 1/4-055603-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

What challenges does the Turnbull face in making its collections more accessible?

This question could require a thesis to answer, so I’ll just touch on a couple of challenges.

The first challenge is the relationship between access and reuse. They are separate in that they are often governed by separate legislation, rules and expectations, and may require different infrastructure and resources, but they are often connected together in a confusing way. Being able to access an item is a prerequisite for being able to reuse the item. But having access to something does not necessarily mean it can be reused. Libraries and archives have a strong tradition of democratising access, but the impact of the ubiquity of digital technologies in the last 10 years or so means that they are having to address good reuse frameworks now.

The second challenge is that collecting institutions like the Turnbull Library are often not the rights owners of the collections they manage; they have to balance the needs of different stakeholders when determining appropriate access and reuse mechanisms. On one hand, the library is committed to utilising technologies to unlock the potential of our collective documentary memory through improved access and reuse frameworks. On the other hand, collecting institutions rely heavily on the trust, generosity and good will of individuals, families and institutions to build their collections. In many cases the donation of items comes with an expectation or an explicit condition restricting access and use. Respecting the rights and trust of the donor community enables libraries like the Turnbull to continue to build good collections.

Finally, with unpublished material, collecting libraries like the Turnbull often have to consider complicated cultural and ethical issues before providing online and access and/or reuse. A photograph could be out of copyright but if it depicts an individual from a culture with a different world view on what the depiction of an ancestor means, then it is incumbent on the institution to consider that. I mentioned the governing legislation of the Library earlier. The explicit mandate to ‘protect’ as distinct from ‘preserve’ requires the Library to consider these issues very seriously.

The Turnbull Library is constantly addressing these challenges and tensions. The first of our new policies around access and reuse should be out in the coming couple of months.

Your work as an archivist has taken you around the world. Can you tell me a bit about your background and interests, particularly as they relate to digitization and open access?

I’m an archivist of the social justice school. What this means is that I enjoy building capacity and capability in information systems (whether they are global, national, community or specifically localised) that enable individuals or communities to have access to the significant information that: supports their rights and entitlements; is critical for them to understand who they are; or enables them to advocate for their interests. This thinking draws heavily on the writing of Jacques Derrida, which has been expanded for the archival profession by the likes of South African archival scholar Verne Harris and American Randall Jimerson. Through this lens, the archival documentation of a country or community is a critical information system that supports social justice. Not all archivists adhere to this thinking, though.

Aside from my current position, I’ve also worked at Archives New Zealand (the government archive of NZ), university libraries, and the BBC Film and Television Archive in London. Most of my international engagement has resulted from my work in the Pacific, with PARBICA — the Pacific Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives. During my time on the governing Bureau of PARBICA we developed a toolkit that helps Pacific countries create, maintain, and archive good records. This toolkit has proven very popular for countries and organisations with limited capacity and capability. It has been translated into French for use in the francophone countries of West Africa. I’ve been fortunate to give training on the toolkit and advocate for good archival practice throughout the Pacific and Southern Africa, and further afield in countries like Ghana and Sweden.

With respect to digitisation and access, all of this experience has contributed to my understanding that, while digitisation is a great tool to support access to information for social justice purposes, it’s also a tool that needs to be used appropriately. There are issues of rights, entitlements, culture and ethics that may require traditional in-person mediation by an institution.

A close-up portrait of local Tongan children, Tonga

A close-up portrait of local Tongan children, Tonga. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-03391-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Many of the Turnbull’s digitized holdings are “all rights reserved,” which does not permit reproduction without the copyright holder’s permission. How is licensing determined at the ATL? Can we expect more images to be made available for reuse and modification?

The Turnbull Library has many thousands of items available for reuse via the National Library’s Papers Past website, which compiles the digitised historic newspapers of New Zealand. However, I think that providing open reuse of items for out-of-copyright published material or paintings that are several hundreds of years old is a relatively straightforward intellectual exercise; it may require human or resource or technology investment which can inhibit the speed at which this is addressed. The comparatively difficult challenge comes with enabling reuse of unpublished items like manuscripts and photographs, which have never been intended for public consumption. As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of tensions that a collecting institution like the Turnbull Library has to address with reuse. Currently, there are thousands of other items available via the website that have no reuse restriction, and many more unpublished items that have some restriction on reuse (enabling use for personal research or for sharing on a blog etc). If a researcher is unsure about reuse or want to use it in a way not specified, there is a staff decision-making process that checks the cultural and ethical challenges mentioned earlier.

But yes, there will be more collections available for reuse. A new policy outlining the Library’s position on reuse should be in place in the coming months.

Finally, what is in the pipeline for the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2014?

More great stuff. More documentary heritage being collected (especially more born digital collections), continuing to improve and update our policies, procedures, and systems. Lots of effort into digitising and making available the Library’s rich collection of WWI diaries, photographs and music scores to commemorate the the 100-year anniversary of the start of the war. More exhibitions and public programmes and staff assisted research in our physical building in Wellington.

Trench mortars captured by New Zealanders in World War I on display in London

Trench mortars captured by New Zealanders in World War I on display in London. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-014088-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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