Plan to integrate collections is dangerous nonsense

The Government plans to merge the National Library and Archives New Zealand into the Department of Internal Affairs. Jim Traue has serious reservations.

John Milton's body will spin in its grave on the other side of the world when his spirit receives the message that Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, his other poems and political pamphlets, including his classic defence of freedom of expression, highlights of the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library, are now all equated by Her Majesty's Government in New Zealand with the registers of births, deaths and marriages in the Department of Internal Affairs.

It's enough to make the man a raving republican.

The Maori Party, the Iwi Leaders Group and Maori voters will be incandescent when they discover that their taonga held by the Turnbull, its collections of Maori language books, periodicals, newspapers and manuscripts, now have the same mana as the electoral rolls.

Thousands of sons and daughters who have entrusted private family letters, diaries and photographs to the Turnbull because they trusted the library to preserve them and ensure they would be used with proper sensitivity will be ropable that they are now classified as "civic information" on a par with the census records gathered by Statistics New Zealand.

Katherine Mansfield will be very bitchy at the thought that the manuscripts of her short stories, poems, letters and diaries are just like passport documentation.

Susan Price and Dorothy Neal White will be flabbergasted that their fine libraries of children's books, highlights of the National Library's research collections, are "civic information", lumped in with the records of naturalisation, gambling, lottery grants and film censorship.

Charles Heaphy VC will be appropriately heroic when he learns that his paintings and drawings of early New Zealand are equivalent to the land registration records held by Land Information New Zealand.

Yes, to justify the integration of the National Library and Archives New Zealand into the Department of Internal Affairs, on the grounds that it has special expertise in digital technology, everything in the Turnbull Library, the National Library and Archives New Zealand is now officially "civic information" on a par with "personal identity records", statistics, electoral rolls, property records, etc.

This is spelled out in a document issued by the three agencies, Integration of Archives New Zealand, National Library of New Zealand and the Department of Internal Affairs.

Plan, June 2010.

"The State Services Commissioner said: A core function of government is to ensure the integrity of and ready access to civic information, such as personal identity information, information relating to the ownership of property, public records, official statistics, electoral rolls, and published and unpublished documentary material and images.

"Each of the three agencies stores and provides information which is collected, managed and/or made accessible for the present and future benefit of New Zealanders and the nation.

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in this regard, and will enhance the government's ability to manage information effectively and efficiently.

"With the earlier absorption of Government Technology Services (from the SSC in July 2009), Internal Affairs has the enhanced technology capability and expertise to enable New Zealanders to access information in ways that suit them."

This is the same Department of Internal Affairs that left the original of the Treaty of Waitangi in a damp basement, where it was gnawed by rats.

The same department that when it administered the Turnbull reputably told the chief librarian in the 1920s when he asked for some money to fill an important gap in the collection, "You've got a nice library, just look after it and don't go bothering us about money for new books."

This is another example of same kind of simplistic and confused thinking by the State Services Commission and Treasury that led to the amalgamation of the departments dealing with agriculture and fisheries several years ago on the grounds that they both dealt with food.

It cost the taxpayers millions of dollars to amalgamate them and even more to disentangle the ensuing dysfunctional mess.

It is easy to dismiss this kind of thinking as nonsense, or just words that will have no real impact.

But it is dangerous nonsense, not only for the Turnbull, National Library and Archives but for local public libraries as well.

The Government is giving a clear invitation to your local authority to lump the "information" in public libraries with dog licences, building consents and rates rolls.

Libraries and archives are not agglomerations of bits of "information" and as such prime candidates for a grand mash-up into a homogenous digital stew with the records compiled by government departments in their daily business.

Never underestimate the destructive power of a bad idea.

Oppose it now before it is too late.

Jim Traue is a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library and the author of over 150 articles, pamphlets and books.


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