The Future of Archives New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand

Don Gilling

The National Archival and Library Institutions Ministerial Group (NALI) is beginning to reveal some of its thinking about the future of Archives New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand.

In an email released just before Christmas the two Ministers in charge of the NALI Review process said amongst other things:

Based on the public feedback, we have agreed that the existing arrangements for the institutions cannot continue.

The Chief Archivist and the National Librarian are hosting workshops with Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision and the statutory bodies that advise the Minister of Internal Affairs on library and archives issues. These workshops will further assist us to develop options to enhance the mana of the institutions and facilitate collaboration among them.

For those who seek the removal of both Library and Archives from under the control of Internal Affairs this represents, perhaps, a partial victory, but concerns remain. What exactly is meant by collaboration and who gets to determine this?

There is no reason at all why archives and libraries cannot co-operate productively, provided that the co-operation is for mutual benefit, arising from agreement between the professionals involved rather than some generic managers, and not imposed by external supervisory or political fiat. But at this stage it looks like the examination of these issues will, in effect, be conducted by insiders, which raises the important issue of how well insiders can distance themselves from the status quo, and in good faith and with an open mind, contemplate the possible dismantling of current institutional arrangements.

The National Librarian, for example, in his submission to the NALI review, advocated the creation of one Crown Entity to govern the three institutions identified by the Ministers, together with a joint executive to manage them. But this would not be collaboration, it would be a takeover, and since the Library receives three times the funding of Archives New Zealand it would represent a naked attempt at grabbing power and control. Furthermore, it would be hard to resist since the leadership team at Archives New Zealand no longer contains people trained as archivists and, therefore, able to make a strong and effective case for the different needs of Archives. Indeed, since early 2014 the position of Chief Archivist has been filled by unqualified and relatively inexperienced Internal Affairs secondments.

Archives and libraries serve different purposes and have different roles. For instance, librarians organise and manage collections of books, manuscripts and private records. They rely upon bibliographical type control according to author and subject. Archivists, on the other hand, organise public records which are the product of Government activities and which need to be organised according to the structure and function of the agency that produced them. While libraries deal with one item at a time — a book, a manuscript — archives deal with a series of files— a final report and all of the correspondence, documents, and papers that led up to that report. In simple terms, we can say that libraries deal with information that can be catalogued, while Archives deal with evidence that can be filed. Bringing them together, or increasing collaboration between them, would be more difficult than some imagine, and steps in those directions will need to be carefully monitored if the problems of the past, or the ill-fated steps taken in Canada, are not to be repeated.

Turning the National and Turnbull Libraries into an Autonomous Crown Entity, under the control of an independent Board of Trustees is a much superior solution. It would avoid destructive bureaucratic arm wrestling, prevent interference from, or rear-guard action by, Internal Affairs, and limit the possibilities of empire building. Collaboration, if appropriate, could then emerge organically. Most importantly, independent status would go a long way to restoring necessary financial transparency and cultural safeguards, together with public trust in the institution.

Similarly, making the Chief Archivist an Officer of Parliament, and ensuring that they were properly qualified as an archivist, would give them sufficient authority to fully control and shape proper archival processes within Government. With appropriate levels of resourcing they would be able to effectively perform their important constitutional role as the keeper of the public record.


The Impact of Internal Affairs

Last year I wrote about how the National and Turnbull Libraries and Archives New Zealand had fared as part of the Department of Internal Affairs. Contrary to claims made about likely efficiencies at the time of their 2010 merger, what was revealed was a very different picture of  increased overheads, and declining budgets. New information obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveals that over the period 2013 — 2018, while the Libraries and Archives were under the control of Internal Affairs:

  • Staff numbers, measured in FTEs for the National Library as a whole, have DECLINED 8.3%, with the DECLINE at the Turnbull being slightly higher at 9.5%.
  • Over the period 2013 — 2019, expenditure on National Library and Alexander Turnbull Library collection and preservation functions will have DECLINED 10%.

A critical issue highlighted by information obtained under the OIA is that it shows that there has been a  significant rise in the level of overheads and a consequential decline in the level of funds that are devoted to operational functions. Just under half of the National Library’s 2018 budget of $63 million is devoted to operational matters. For Archives New Zealand, only one dollar in three of their much smaller budget is devoted to direct archives activity, with the remaining two dollars being spent on DIA imposed central costs. Internal Affairs claim that overheads are allocated by means of standard accounting methods, but the incurrence of overheads and the determination of their level and allocation, is solely at the discretion of Internal Affairs, as is the potential to transfer amongst different and divergent functions.

While comparability with other government agencies is difficult because of differing functions and reasons to hold assets, the overhead spending on depreciation, central costs and capital charge by the Ombudsman is 37.1% of total expenditure, the Department of Conservation 18.5%, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade 15.1%, and the New Zealand Defence Force at 30.8% are much lower than Internal Affairs. Furthermore, Internal Affairs adds a significantly higher mark-up to items of actual expenditure charged to business units in order to cover overheads, compared to other government agencies. It is therefore most unlikely that the move to independent status for the Archives and the Library would require the current levels of overheads charged by Internal Affairs.

On a broader canvas, declining expenditure is evidence of deliberate under-funding, not the achievement of cost efficiencies, and is putting the fulfilment of statutory functions at significant risk.

The following comment made by the Turnbull Librarian, in his submission to the Ministerial Review Group, is particularly pertinent:

Operational resourcing — ongoing operational funding cuts over the last several years have left the National Library, and the Turnbull within it, severely weakened and demoralised.  These are now manifesting in staff cuts and service closures. This is an area of immediate concern, and rates as the most urgent challenge.

According to the Ministers, one of the key themes to emerge from the 151 submissions to the Ministerial Review was a concern about funding. The key issue they now face, and on which they have so far been silent, is how will Government respond to the funding challenge, at the same time as the Ministers “develop options” that will enhance the “mana of the institutions”, provide for the independence of the institutions, and allay fears amongst stakeholders about the continuing role and influence of insiders.



Feature photo credit: Jacob Pollock

Categories: Public sector
Don Gilling
About the author

Don Gilling

Dr Donald Gilling has taught at Universities in Australia, England and New Zealand, and for nine years was Professor of Accounting and Finance at the University of Waikato. He holds Fellowships in both Professional Accounting Bodies in Australasia and is the author of over ninety papers in academic and professional journals, covering topics in public finance, accounting and auditing, and the economics of education. He has acted as an expert witness in a number of applications for Judicial Review of the operations and decision making of government and public bodies. He has been a member of the committee of the Friends of the Turnbull Library for nearly 20 years.