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by Stuart Strachan

In 1957, prompted by a fire which had destroyed many government records, the government passed laws to set up the National Archives to better preserve government information. Now called Archives New Zealand, it is the largest archive in the country. Many other organisations also have archives containing records that are crucial to understanding New Zealand’s history.

Government archives

Archives are records that are permanently kept for legal, administrative and cultural purposes. They are generally unpublished, and they support most historical research.

Archives New Zealand

By far the largest and most significant repository in New Zealand is Archives New Zealand, Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga (formerly National Archives), which is responsible for holding all government archives.

Archives New Zealand in Wellington holds key documents, including:

  • signed copies of the Treaty of Waitangi
  • the archives of the New Zealand Company, which began organised colonisation of New Zealand
  • the archives of Parliament
  • commissions of inquiry documents
  • most higher court records
  • the archives of government agencies and the armed forces.

Branches in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin hold government archives from their respective regions. In 2013 the total holdings comprised more than 4 million records.

Most long-established local authorities have their own independent archives.

National duty

Some lone voices in the 19th-century archival wilderness spoke out for better treatment of the nation’s records. In 1890 scholar and political reformer Edward Tregear wrote: ‘the literary collection [of our records] is a national duty … which, if we neglect, we shall earn the well-deserved opprobrium of those to whom forgetfulness of national welfare in the individual pursuit of wealth will not appear to be the end and aim of human existence.’1

Slow start

Although Britain had formal archives legislation from 1838, and Canada from 1912, New Zealand was slow to provide for the safekeeping of its official records.

From 1906 various makeshift arrangements were entered into, but real progress only came with the appointment in 1926 of Guy Scholefield as controller of the Dominion Archives. Further momentum was provided by the establishment of official war archives in the Second World War and in the aftermath of a disastrous 1952 fire in the Hope Gibbons building in Wellington, which destroyed many important records.

Archives Act 1957

In 1954 the cabinet approved the establishment of a national archive and the office of chief archivist, and the drafting of enabling legislation.

The Archives Act 1957 established the National Archives within the Department of Internal Affairs. The act covered the records of the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. It gave the chief archivist sole power to approve the disposal of official records (including their destruction) and the power to require the transfer of records to the archive after 25 years. The act affirmed public access to official archives.

In 1977, by amendment to the Local Government Act 1974, limited protection was extended to local authority archives.

For the first 20 years National Archives was severely hampered by inadequate accommodation and staffing at a time when the responsibilities of government were expanding rapidly. A 1978 report by Wilfred I. Smith (known as the Smith report), commissioned by the recently formed Archives and Records Association of New Zealand, highlighted these and other deficiencies, leading over time to improved accommodation and staffing.

Public interest

Public interest in archives grew from the 1950s – from academic historians increasingly drawn to unpublished sources, local historians and, most of all, from genealogists. There was also increased interest from Māori, who from 1984 would use archival material in claims about historical grievances at the Waitangi Tribunal.

Silenced voices

Archives New Zealand holds the cockpit voice recording tapes of the Air New Zealand flight TE901, which crashed on Antarctica’s Mt Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board. The tapes record the final words of the crew before the plane hit the mountain. Under the terms of the transfer agreement, drawn up when the tapes were given to Archives New Zealand by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission in 1997, no-one can listen to the recordings and it is unlikely that they will ever be aired publically.

Constitutional significance

Increased awareness of the constitutional significance of government archives further highlighted their importance. This was reflected in the passing of the Ombudsmen Act 1975 and the Official Information Act 1982, and the new philosophies of public sector management embodied in the State Sector Act 1988, which was designed to improve government accountability and efficiency.

21st-century developments

In 2000 National Archives became a stand-alone department called Archives New Zealand. With the advent of digital records and the creation of state-owned enterprises, the Archives Act 1957 was well out of date. New comprehensive legislation, the Public Records Act 2005, was passed.

As well as confirming the major provisions of the earlier legislation and extending coverage, the 2005 act empowered the chief archivist to set standards for the creation and maintenance of current records, including digital ones, across the whole of government, with compulsory powers of audit and a mandatory annual report on government record-keeping to Parliament. It also established the Archives Council to advise the minister responsible for Archives New Zealand. The archives provisions of the Local Government Act 1974 were consolidated into the new act.

In 2011 Archives New Zealand was reintegrated back into the Department of Internal Affairs.

    • Edward Tregear, The archives of New Zealand. Wellington: [publisher unknown], 1890, p. 4. Back

Other archives and digital records

Grey, Hocken and Turnbull

The work of preserving personal archives during the 19th and early 20th centuries was largely undertaken by private collectors, notably George Grey, Thomas Morland Hocken and Alexander Turnbull. Their collections formed the nucleus of the three most significant repositories of non-official archives:

  • the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Auckland Libraries (established in 1883), which is particularly notable for Māori manuscripts
  • the Hocken Collections at the University of Otago in Dunedin (1910), which holds important early missionary and Pākehā settlement records, business archives and literary papers
  • the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington (1920).

The Alexander Turnbull Library has a national collecting role. Its collections include extensive records of major national organisations and a wide range of personal papers, including those of leading politicians and writers such as Donald McLean, Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson.

Other repositories

Other significant archival collections are in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the University of Auckland Library, the McMillan Brown Collection at the University of Canterbury and Canterbury Museum in Christchurch.

Notable specialist repositories are Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision (formed in 2014 when the New Zealand Film Archive, the Radio New Zealand Sound Archives and the Television New Zealand archives amalgamated in 2014) and the Oral History and Sound collection at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Papers and other unofficial records relating to the armed forces are preserved at museums in Waiōuru (army), Devonport (navy) and Wigram (air force).

Family history centres

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church) operates 43 family history centres in New Zealand. Many of the centres are located in small towns and are branches of the Family History Library in the United States. The centres were created so members of the church could perform temple ordinances (for example, baptisms) for deceased ancestors. However, all genealogists can use their facilities to research family history.

All the major churches – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian – have formal arrangements for preserving their archives, as do the larger universities and some long-established secondary schools, both public and private.

Smaller repositories – mostly public libraries, museums and historical societies – serve local and specialised needs. Prompted in part by the research required for Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, some Māori tribal authorities have also established their own archives. Most business archives are found in general repositories, but some companies, such as the Bank of New Zealand and Fletcher Challenge, maintained their own publicly accessible archives.

New technology and digital records

The most significant recent development for all archives has been the advent of computers, greatly improving their management and providing better public access to them through digitisation. Most repositories now have computerised catalogues with internet access.

More challenging has been the treatment of born-digital documents. The National Library of New Zealand’s National Digital Heritage Archive, which preserves digital material including entire websites, went live in 2008. Building on this, in 2010 Archives New Zealand secured funding to construct the Government Digital Archive, to house new digital records.


The Archives and Records Association of New Zealand (established in 1976) advocates for archives and publishes a biannual journal, Archifacts. Professional postgraduate education for archivists is provided by Victoria University of Wellington, and at Monash and Charles Sturt universities in Australia.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Stuart Strachan, 'Archives', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2023)

He kōrero nā Stuart Strachan, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014