18 Nov 2022

Historian wants inquiry into limits on Archives NZ's services

12:36 pm on 18 November 2022
Dossiers of historical documents

Some historical records needed for the likes of legal cases are not digitised - however, Archives NZ has cut its opening hours. Photo: 123RF

Mounting difficulties getting hold of important historical documents are sparking government infighting and threats of legal action.

A High Court Justice has noted cases are being "severely impeded" and Crown Law has been "adversely affected".

To make matters worse, the $4.6 million system (costed out to 2024)  used to search the central official repository of the country's historical files hashad to be shut down over a security breach of restricted documents.

Businesswoman using phone searching Browsing Internet Data Information.Networking Concept

There are fears the security of restricted documents has been breached. Photo: 123RF

The troubles are mounting for Archives NZ even as it builds a $290m, gold-coloured headquarters in Wellington to hold its millions of records.

The irony has not been lost on historians.

"The implication is that the bricks and mortar are going to be flash but the service could be significantly compromised," president of the Professional Historians' Association Michael Kelly said.

Archives NZ has been under the gun not just from historians but from lawyers, other government agencies, and even Crown Law, over growing hurdles to get hold of records kept nowhere else and often not digitised.

A High Court judge's minute from July, after a court survey of how marine and coastal claim cases were being handled, said: "A number of counsel for the applicants, as well as counsel for the Attorney-General, indicated that the undertaking of historical research in respect of claims had been severely impeded by the reduced hours of opening of the National Archives.

"The difficulty in accessing the National Archives is now impacting on the ability of parties to comply with the court's timetable directions."

Archives NZ halved the opening hours at its various reading rooms around the country in 2020; it argued patronage was dropping and the money was better spent on digitising records.

But then in February, the online access to those digital records received a jolt.

A new system was brought in - and with it a "series of issues", Chief archivist Anahera Morehu has now admitted.

"In recent months, we have observed that some records or information associated with records, are appearing in unexpected places," she said.

This culminated a week ago in restricted data popping up in public, triggering an investigation - and Morehu pulling the plug on the entire public search system.

Leading historian Vincent O'Malley said it felt like a "taonga" was being abused.

"You know, next year we're having New Zealand history taught in all schools but at the same time we are devaluing historical research in this country through what's happening in Archives," O'Malley said.

Crown Law told RNZ it met with Archives in May and again in June over the reduced hours and search problems.

Archives had since dropped a requirement to book to use reading rooms, Crown Law said.

"Crown Law understands Archives NZ is considering improvements to its search engine," it said.

Morehu told RNZ last night: "We acknowledge the outages and issues around functionality are impacting on important mahi, and that is why we are working hard to try and resolve them."

Kelly said nothing much had changed since February, despite his association joining an informal group with various ministries, including Culture and Heritage and the Waitangi Tribunal, to ask Archives for action.

"We get some platitudinous responses," Kelly said.

The Justice Ministry and Te Arawhiti Māori Crown Relations agency confirmed to RNZ they were involved in the talks.

Rotorua lawyer Annette Sykes said the Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti should have stepped in six months ago.

"She has no choice but to get involved now."

Sykes estimated 200 marine and coastal claimaints were caught up in delays, to say nothing of Waitangi Tribunal, aquifer and other cases.

"Something that would normally have taken three months may take between six to nine months because of the reduced access."

The research that established claimants' rights to sea or land was "vital".

One elderly client was so concerned she might die before getting a hearing, she was looking at taking Archives to court seeking a judicial review around reducing its hours without seeking Māori input, Sykes added.

O'Malley, who works on High Court and other cases, wanted an inquiry.

"Collections has been an unmitigated disaster," he said. "It wasn't tested on public users before the system went live.

"You can't actually order archival records through it... There are major issues with being able to find material on it... It only lists 12 records at a time even if you've got hundreds of results."

It was much worse than the old, but trusted, Archway system it replaced, he said.

Dr Vincent O'Malley.

There are major issues finding material on Archives NZ's new digital system, Vincent O'Malley says. Photo: RNZ / Great Southern Television

Archives said it had looked at rebooting Archway due to the new system's problems, but it was too late.

Kelly wondered if the security breach could be a circuit breaker to finally get action.

"It might be, we just don't know, but I mean the fact that this has just exacerbated their problems might finally help the DIA decide that it wants to throw more money at the problem."

DIA - the Department of Internal affairs - has been aware of the performance problems, Archives NZ said.

Archives NZ must work with provider to solve problems - Minister

Jan Tinetti

Jan Tinetti. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Minister Tinetti told RNZ she had spoken to the chief archivist, "who has assured me that Archives New Zealand is taking this issue very seriously".

"I have received concerns from members of the public about the new Collections system and the frustrations they have experienced since it went live in February this year.

"I know that Archives NZ staff are working extremely hard with the vendor to improve the functionality of the new system."

Tinetti said while she monitored the issue "closely", it was an operational matter for the agency to "resolve ongoing issues within the contract it has with the vendor".

Morehu told RNZ the pandemic impacted testing the new system though it did test it on "paper prototypes", and did some face-to-face and user testing.

"Archives NZ staff were the ones who discovered the potential breach and immediately closed access," she said in a statement.

"We take the issue of privacy very seriously. Investigations are ongoing to determine if there has been a breach."

The vendor Axiell was an international leader in collections management software, she said, adding, "We are committed to working with Axiell to showcase that reputation."

RNZ approached Axiell for comment.

Morehu said Archives had been engaging with users and appreciated their "honest" feedback.

Asked what had happened since the High Court minute in July, she said, "I am receiving advice on this from staff and ... will respond further when I can."

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