Whither Archives New Zealand and the National Library?

Proposals to change the unsatisfactory status of two vital heritage institutions are meeting strong resistance from their current host.

In 2010 the State Services Commission, in its bureaucratic arrogance, decided to merge Archives NZ and the National Library into the Department of Internal Affairs. National cabinet ministers, under the thumbs of their departments, agreed (such instances are more common than is usually admitted). Those concerned about the integrity of the two institutions made submissions to the parliamentary select committee. The DIA made solemn promises about its stewardship which it promptly ignored once the merger was approved.

Instead of recognising the integrity and culture of the two institutions, it dumped them into its information technology division under, I suppose, the misapprehension that archives were about keyboards and libraries mouses. The list of grievances of the treatment by the DIA is long, demonstrating the failed stewardship.

In opposition, the Labour Party promised to separate out Archives NZ and National Library. There is a ministerial group thinking about how it is to be done. Submissions are invited by August 19.

Had the DIA been a good steward it could have kept its promises by establishing the two institutions as Autonomous Crown Entities like Te Papa and Heritage New Zealand. (The submerging of identity is so thorough that neither institution independently reports to Parliament.) Instead Procrustes shoe-horned them into an operating division.

The Labour Party policy for Archives New Zealand is even better. It wants to make the Chief Archivist an Officer of Parliament like the Auditor General and the Ombudsman. This is because a public records office is a part of the system of keeping the Executive (of which the DIA and the SSC are part) accountable to the people. An easy way to reduce this accountability is to destroy the records (that would also save needing an Official Information Act).

Imagine what would have happened to Maori grievances had there been no records of land transfers in the nineteenth century. Government departments have increasingly sought the permission of the weakened Chief Archivist (the position is third ranking in the DIA, fourth since it is below the States Services Commission) to destroy the twenty-first-century equivalent of potentially inconvenient case record. (Destruction of case notes could make useless an inquiry into mental health or child abuse in state institutions.)

Which should not surprise you; many bureaucrats would prefer low levels of accountability. Had they had their way they would subsume Parliament to a fifth level in the DIA.

The location of the National Library is more problematic. It is not a public records office but there is a parallel in that what Archives New Zealand is to the government, the National Library is to New Zealand society as a whole. By retaining the social records – historically dominated by books – it introduces an accountability for society. If you wanted to write a history of, say, women in society, you would spend a lot more time in the National Library that among the public records.

Should a national library be located in the government? To cut a long story short, without the National Library our social record would be very impaired. However it is an odd, although not a unique, part of the government. Most of the Library’s most-valuable assets are not really the government’s but are held by the government on behalf of the people of New Zealand. That is obvious with the holdings of the Alexander Turnbull Library (part of the National Library), which are gifts from the people to be held in trust on behalf of all of us.

That is also true for the legal deposit collection of the National Library; two copies of every book published in New Zealand have to be deposited there for posterity. Were the government to claim the collection as its own it would have acquired it by privatisation without compensation.

(Both institutions have to meet a digital challenge. The response needs to be organic out of the international and professional experience of the professions involved, not some superior and uninformed techy imposing on them.)

So the government is primarily a trustee for the collections in the National Library. It is true that it contributes to the cost of enlarging the collections and maintaining it. That it is what a good trustee should do. Splendid!

However such an approach is not in the forefront of the DIA’s mind, well illustrated by its putting a passport office in the ground floor of the National Library building. (It is the DIA’s building, isn’t it?) That is as insulting as putting a massage parlour in a bottom floor of the parliamentary complex.

So the National Library is not a part of the Executive (neither is Archives New Zealand). It is an agency entrusted with the nation’s assets, with the Executive acting as the trustee. It is obviously wrong to make it a sub-department of a department of state (even if one did not pursue the DIA weird logic and subsume into its information technology branch).

An Autonomous Crown Entity is the right functional form for the National Library. Where should it be located? The DIA has forfeited any claim by its poor stewardship in the last eight years. The obvious steward is the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, which is already responsible for analogous trusteeships of Te Papa and Heritage New Zealand (which used to be the Historic Places Trust).

Why is it taking so long to get to the outcome set out in Labour’s manifesto? Obviously there are technical issues (like law changes) and every messy divorce gets into a tangle over property. But Wellington gossip, which is not always reliable, says that the DIA is strongly resisting. The story is that it is like an empire turning an independent country into a colony, then exploiting it despite the promises it made and now fighting tooth and nail to maintain its control of the colony.

I am surprised if the gossip is true. Were I a part of DIA’s senior management (which would exclude my being the Chief Archivist or National Librarian), I would not want the past failures of the department to come out too openly, Lists of the DIA stewardship failures are already floating around. Once the issue is opened up, they will get extended and publicly published; in all likelihood there will be evidence of failures in other parts of the DIA empire.

I am not sure that the DIA bureaucratic administration is inherently flawed. But it has proved that its culture is incompetent to handle heritage organisations. If it shows too much resistance to giving them up, it will leave the management (and ministers) looking like the asses that their predecessors already look. For they did not understand that the two new colonies were totally different in culture to that which the DIA has been able to manage competently. Archives, libraries and their supporters have long memories.

Footnote. The Ministerial Group is also reviewing the future of Nga Taonga, the New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound. The logic is to make it an ACE sponsored by the MCH.