Your National Library exists to collect, preserve, and protect documents, particularly those relating to New Zealand, and to make them accessible to you. It is also charged with assisting other libraries in New Zealand and overseas. That’s from the Act, more or less.
It’s a simple mission, but a complex organisation. In fact, it may help to think of it as three libraries: a legal deposit library, a research library and a school library service, responsible for the General Collections, the Alexander Turnbull Library Collections, and the Schools Collections respectively. Each has its own unique collections and character.
(It may sound like we’re overdoing it, but there are no rules about what a national library should and should not do, and other countries take things even further by merging their national library with their national archive or parliamentary library.)
The collections are made up (as the Act says) of documents. But what, you may ask, is a document, in this day and age? As it happens, the Act has a handy definition that includes traditional forms like books, magazines and newspapers, but also images, music, film, “any writing on any material”, information stored in a computer, and various other things. Digital information is clearly included, so the National Library is collecting more and more digital documents each year, but this doesn’t mean that there are fewer paper documents. In fact, paper publications are still increasing year on year (but “peak paper” can’t be far off, surely).
The National Library is a legal deposit library, which means publishers are required to provide two copies of every document they publish to the National Librarian. One of these enters the General Collections, and is available for you to view in the reading rooms, or to borrow by interloan through your local library. The General Collections also include works purchased from overseas, and access to databases and subscriptions. And other odd stuff that I have only learned of since writing this commentary, such as the Motor Manuals Collection.
The second legal deposit copy is added to the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library. This ensures the research library comprehensively collects the nation’s published output, but the Turnbull also has vast unpublished collections, including manuscripts (by which we mean people’s personal papers), photographs, oral histories, drawings, paintings and prints. The unpublished collections are largely built through donations and purchases, and can be accessed by registered readers in the reading rooms.
Five years ago legal deposit was extended to include Internet documents, which includes websites. The rules are a little different for websites, in that the Library takes a copy rather than the publisher providing one, but the intent is the same: to “assist in preserving New Zealand’s documentary heritage” (that’s the Act again). The Library accomplishes this in two ways: an ongoing programme of selective web harvesting (i.e. copying websites one at a time) and less frequent domain harvests (i.e. copying the .NZ internet).
The Library therefore has large and growing digital holdings, which we think of as either born digital or digitised. Born digital means documents like web pages, digital photographs and word processor files that have never had an analogue form. Digitised, on the other hand, means digital reproductions of existing analogue documents. All these digital documents have unique collection, storage and access requirements, and we have developed the National Digital Heritage Archive to ensure they can be preserved in perpetuity.
(But as an aside, our Collections Policy treats digital as just another format: the Photographic Archive includes images from both film and digital cameras, for example, while the Manuscripts Collection includes both handwritten letters and emails that were tapped out on keyboards. I can only think of one all-digital collection, and that’s the New Zealand Web Archive.)
For library users, digital material has an important characteristic that analogue material does not: it can be copied and distributed extremely easily. This has revolutionised the way that libraries provide access to collections. Over the last ten years the National Library has digitised more and more collection items in order to put them online. Here are a few examples from the last few months: 81 volumes of parliamentary papers, two major Auckland newspapers (in partnership with Auckland Libraries), a range of other newspapers (with more to come shortly), several thousand digitised photographs, a substantial research collection that our collaborators in Auckland will announce in due course, and a continuing stream of selected pictorial and audio content (such as these).
You can find and access this digital material through a variety of National Library websites, even if you are unable to visit and view the originals in Wellington. By far the most popular is Papers Past, which is a goldmine for genealogists and historians, and frequently offers a very different perspective from modern media. Topical example: did your paper report that the Emperor Penguin tastes like hare and will live after his skull has been “most hopelessly smashed”? Other large digitised collections include the papers of Donald McLean, the Appendix to the Journal of the House of Representatives, and the Timeframes image collection. To find online material on an arbitrary topic, you can search the Library’s combined catalogue then click on the “Online” button at the top of the search results.
Digital material has another intriguing characteristic: it amplifies rights issues. The National Library has an Access Policy to guide its decisions about providing access to documents, but it is based on a slightly dated definition of access: the ability to view a document for the purpose of private study. With some exceptions, access does not come with the features that many of our more vocal online users require: high-quality digital versions, plus the right to reproduce and re-use them in new works. These demands are only going to increase, so the Library is addressing the issue using best practice public service techniques.
The starting point for these discussions is that the National Library remains committed to collecting documents, and “making them accessible for all the people of New Zealand”, as this is our purpose under the Act. However, the Act also says we should do this “in a manner consistent with their status as documentary heritage and taonga”, and “subject to conditions” that control the way that the collections are accessed and used.
There are a number of factors that influence the Library to provide more or less access to digital items. On the side of increased access we have the institutional mandate to provide access, the increasing demands from customers for better access (including reproduction rights), and the NZGOAL Framework which encourages the use of open licences for all government data (which probably includes collection items and catalogues). On the side of increased control are the requirement to treat the documents as taonga, obligations to donors (including written and implied agreements), obligations under copyright law and negotiated agreements with publishers, and the fact that many documents in the collections don’t actually have usable rights information. Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess, a concentrated mixture of the intellectual property rights issues that our wider society struggles with.
Despite these complications, the National Library and the Turnbull are continuing to make our analogue and digital taonga available online. Providing access is the part of the Library’s work that is most immediately useful and appreciated, and that attracts the most attention, but it is only one of three core purposes. We therefore have to balance the provision of access against our two other responsibilities: to collect today’s documents for future generations, and to preserve what we have already collected.
By way of disclaimer, I work for the National Library of New Zealand on digitisation, web archiving, and various other projects.