Highlights from the Arrangement & Description Team

Every year the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Arrangement and Description (A&D) team processes hundreds of incoming unpublished collections that vary in size, form, and content. From 16 mm film reels to Betacam cassettes, 7” vinyl to CDs, digital photographs to panoramic negatives, personal accounts to organisational records, literary drafts to annotated volumes, the processing journey is nearly always a fascinating one.

Our job is to ensure that the context of the collection, as well as its intellectual and physical integrity, is maintained through observing the archival principles of original order and provenance. Then, through creating descriptive metadata we make sure that these collections are discoverable by New Zealanders and the world! We also rehouse material and liaise with the Library’s conservation staff to ensure that items are safely stored.

Here are some of the A&D team members’ thoughts on some of our favourite collections from 2015!

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Collection - Merryn McAulay

Merryn McAulay. Photo by Catherine BisleyMerryn McAulay. Photo by Catherine Bisley

One of my favourite collections to work on in 2015 was the records of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) (MS-Group-0278), because it was a fascinating insight into recent New Zealand history and culture as well as showing changes in sound and video recording technology!

This collection included original scores, unpublished sound and video recordings, a large number of concert programmes, and other historical material collected by the Orchestra and its predecessors. A highlight for me was the original 1978 score for The Earnslaw Steam Theme composed and arranged by British composer and conductor Ron Goodwin, inspired by a trip he had taken on Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown. The score was donated by Ron Goodwin to the Cancer Society in 1998, then purchased from the Cancer Society and donated to the NZSO at a later date. You can listen to a short extract of the The Earnslaw Steam Theme , played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

This was a large collection comprising 75 folders, 22 10 inch reels, 118 videocassettes, 112 tapes, and 4 volumes. It complements the collection of original cartoons about the Orchestra already held (DPP-Group-0008). In 2016 I look forward to seeing the extensive photographic part of this collection arranged and described and available for researchers to access.

Tom Hensman scrapbook - Flora Feltham

Flora Feltham. Photo by Catherine BisleyFlora Feltham. Photo by Catherine Bisley

Tom Hensman (1855-1939) was an early Shannon settler, carpenter, debater, bowls enthusiast, devoted grandfather, and engaged left-wing citizen. He created this scrapbook and visual diary for his family from 1907-1934. It covers many subjects: a voyage to Europe, travel around New Zealand, family weddings, local events and – unavoidably – the impact of World War One. It is filled with letters, photographs, tickets, stamps, programmes, newspaper clippings, and travel memorabilia. Hensman also wrote short rhyming poems to explain each memento. Some highlights include early ANZAC poppies (collected 1922-1934), a collage celebrating his golden wedding anniversary, and an account of a camel train in Suez. It is a unique example of 20th century print culture habits and also shows Hensman’s love for his family and his amazing visual sense. This volume is still ‘on the bench’ and being processed, so please look out for it in 2016!

Wellington Aquarium and Water Garden Society Records - Catherine Bisley

Catherine Bisley. Photo by Flora FelthamCatherine Bisley. Photo by Flora Feltham

Have you ever been on a pond crawl? On 2 Dec 1961 a group from the Wellington Aquarium and Water Garden Society travelled to Whanganui to do just that. The itinerary, part of the records now held in the Library, details that at Mrs M Osborne’s the group were to see “coldwater & tropical” set-ups, while an address on Alma Road boasted an extensive cacti display. The crawl was rounded off with a cup of tea.

Founded in 1933 by William John Phillipps the society wound up in 2013 after a decline in membership. In addition to day-to-day club workings (membership, organising speakers, billeting visitors, marking schedules for Shubunkin fish, etc.) the records include international correspondence with fish traders and experts and other fish clubs: the South Arkansas Tropical Fish Club, a tropical fish breeder in the Bronx (this correspondence is, somewhat confusingly, on the letterhead for his other area of business – speciality meats), the editor of ‘Aquario’ magazine in Havana (Cuba), and the Kowloon Aquarium (Hong Kong) are some examples. Minutes of meetings provide insight into the workings of the club, with one standing item “Problems” describing swift and greedy herons, ill-fated axolotls, and angel fish too shy to be exhibited. Subject files include a folder relating to changes in importation rules in the 1970s and a rift with the Christchurch Branch in the 1940s.

These 80 years of records provide a window into how communities form around hobbies and the way in which such groups disseminated information at a time before you could type “fish swimming upside down” into Google to find out the reason why. The pastel yearly club programs and the excellent letterhead design decisions made by fish enthusiasts worldwide were a different kind of highlight. The one thing that was less enjoyable about this collection was removing an array of torturous and rusted fastenings.

Robert Percy Moore Panoramas - Win Lynch

Win Lynch. Photo by Valerie LoveWin Lynch. Photo by Valerie Love

One of my long term projects has been to describe the nearly 2,500 panoramic negatives taken by Robert Percy Moore between 1923 and 1928. Moore was an entrepreneur who had links with the Government Tourist office, taking images of royal tours, and views of popular sites such as Rotorua. Another area of interest was buildings, in some case both interior and exterior, relating to businesses such as cheese and dairy factories, laundries, car sales yards, and mining activities.

Moore also toured the country and would take views of farming properties and homesteads, inviting the owners to order copies. From there he was able to take other images in the area as neighbours became interested. I was able to describe each one, and as he gave the location and name of the client on many of them, the joy for me was being able to add value to by searching tools such as Wise’s Post Office Directory and the internet for further information so I could give full name, geographical and subject headings where possible. On some he gave no information so all I could do was describe as accurately as possible the type of landscape, plants, style of house, etc in the hopes that someone might recognise the view so we could update the information.

Details of physical features of New Zealand in the early 20th century were really interesting, particularly in relation to changes since then. One of the aspects that I found fascinating was the clearance of huge tracts of land for farming, particularly in areas such as Manawatu-Wanganui Region. The photographs show grass between burnt stumps, making one realise how wonderful the countryside would have been with such wide areas of native bush.

Cowan family papers - Ariana Tikao

Ariana Tikao. Photo by Catherine BisleyAriana Tikao. Photo by Catherine Bisley

A favourite collection that I have worked on this year, is actually still a work in progress. The Cowan family papers (MS-Group-2378) mostly relates to the writer James Cowan (about whom I curated a 2014 exhibition), but also to other members of his whānau.

I have chosen to highlight one item from this collection, the ‘Maori-English tutor and vade mecum’ which was published by Whitcombe & Tombs in circa 1911 (fMS-Papers-11946-001). A ‘vade mecum’ is a handbook or guide, and this particular one was written by Cowan’s father in law, the Ngāpuhi scholar, Henry Stowell, undoubtedly to support his language teaching. In the 1920s and 1930s, Stowell was a recognisable character around the streets of Wellington, ‘tall, bearded, with a shock of white hair and blue eyes’ he was also described as gregarious and convivial. This annotated book was a part of James Cowan’s personal library and, like many of his books, it contains loose papers laid into the volume, including clippings, research papers, waiata, correspondence, and drafts. These are now held in a folder housed with the book. The papers include a welcome address to returning Maori soldiers, from World War One, 'composed and translated expressly by Hare Hongi Stowell, Wellington, 1941'. The waiata include a lament performed by Hon James Carroll at Richard Seddon's funeral (21 June, 1906), a lament for the Ngāti Tama leader Te Puoho, and a typescript of the waiata 'Tarakihi' or 'Song of the locust' with an arrangement and translation.

Although just a little item from a large and splendid collection, I am sure it will be of great interest to future researchers.

Scott Family: Papers relating to the Scott, Cachemaille and Boxer family papers - Tim Lovell-Smith

Tim Lovell-Smith. Photo by Merryn McAulayTim Lovell-Smith. Photo by Merryn McAulay

Sometimes gems come in a small package. Such is the case with the papers of Marguerite Cachemaille Scott, whose modest six folders of papers is part of the grandly titled Scott Family: Papers relating to the Scott, Cachemaille and Boxer family papers (MS-Group-2413).

Marguerite Scott had an interesting career, working briefly at the Alexander Turnbull Library, training as a motor mechanic, serving with the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service (Wrens) during the Second World War, and later marrying a New Zealand diplomat. She relieved the longueurs of the restricted life of a diplomat’s partner in overseas postings by organising a Women’s Foreign Service Association in the 1970s. As well, she drafted a manual for the diplomats’ families while overseas, detailing their unpaid duties, which included dealing with local servants and organising and attending receptions, parties, and large formal dinners. The arrangement of seating plans of the latter alone called for a refined tactical skill.

In 1992 Marguerite wrote her unpublished reminiscences of serving as a “Classifier” and driver of the station lorry at the Naval Intelligence R/T interception station in a commandeered farmhouse at Rapaura in Marlborough, one of a chain of such stations, listening in on Japanese radio communications from 1942 to 1945. She describes the work of the telegraphists, translators and “classifiers” (those whose duty was to interpret the interceptions), as well as the vagaries of the naval equipping of the station (the cooking utensils supplied were designed for large ships’ crews and included massive saucepans and frying pans too big for the farmhouse’s modest stove, while the essential aerial for radio interception was missing. To this last omission Scott writes of an improvised solution which involved a wire attached to an arrow, a nearby tree, and an obliging petty officer who was also an archer.

Visit from the Topp Twins - Valerie Love

Valerie Love with Jools and Lynda Topp. Photograph by Mark BeattyValerie Love with Jools and Lynda Topp. Photograph by Mark Beatty

For me, this past year was all about the transition from Turnbull’s former catalogue, TAPUHI, to a new collection management system. Instead of my usual work to prepare incoming digital and/or hybrid (mixed-format) collections for use by researchers, I spent 2015 looking back on our previous finding aids and descriptive records in order to analyse our data and create rules and data mappings for the migration to our new system. And also doing a lot of pre- and post-migration testing!

However, a major highlight of 2015 was a recent visit to Turnbull Library by the infamous Topp Twins! Diva Productions, the artist management company for the Topp Twins had donated a large collection of Topp Twins materials to the Library in 2013, with additions to the collection received since. I had arranged and described the collection when we first received it, and it was a real treat to be able to show Jools and Lynda Topp the collection and its finding aid so they could see what the Library had done with it since.

Te Ara Panuku project - Kirsty Cox

Kirsty Cox. Photo by Catherine BisleyKirsty Cox. Photo by Catherine Bisley

Wow what an absolutely flat out year it has been! My time in 2015 has been almost exclusively spent on the Te Ara Panuku project to replace TAPUHI, the Library’s unpublished collections management system. I attended Future Business Processes workshops, worked on the requirement specifications, “cleaned” TAPUHI data so that it could be migrated correctly, assisted with planning the migration of TAPUHI data into the new system, developing the data migration spreadsheets for the vendor to develop the scripts, tested the migration in all three testing phases and for the final data load, trained as a System Administrator, and finally worked on cleaning up the data in the Production environment to ensure that both staff and clients have a positive experience when the new system is launched!

Singing Telegrams Records (accrual) - Dr Susan Skudder

Dr Susan Scudder. Photo by Catherine BisleyDr Susan Scudder. Photo by Catherine Bisley

I started work in the Arrangement and Description team in mid-November 2015, so I haven’t worked on a large number of collections so far. My favourite of the collections I’ve worked on is an accrual to an existing collection of Singing Telegrams. The Singing Telegrams Company was established in Wellington in 1981 by Kristelle Plimmer. Performers in fancy dress delivered personalised telegrams, to mark birthdays, anniversaries or other special occasions. The business was the inspiration for the NZ film 'Send a gorilla' (1988).

This year Kristelle Plimmer gave the Library the last of the company’s records, folders of telegram order records and notebooks of drafts of the telegrams that were delivered. The order records largely comprise information about the person or group that was getting the telegram, and the occasion of the telegram. They are the raw material from which the songs were devised, and I am in awe of the imaginative effort it must have taken to write song after song that rhymed, made sense, said the right things about the person and the occasion, and amused the recipients (or their friends, at least!). Kristelle also had a very efficient recordkeeping process to support the business: every draft telegram has a date and time; every order form has been annotated to show that the order has been paid. It is interesting to see how many telegrams there were and for many different occasions, from office warmings, to birthdays, to farewells. This collection is a little piece of Wellington’s quirky creative past.

Captain Hugh Blomfield Nicholson (1866-1957): Shipboard journal 14 Oct 1897 - 1 Apr 1898 - Dr Sascha Nolden

Dr Sascha Nolden. Photo by Catherine BisleyDr Sascha Nolden. Photo by Catherine Bisley

I have had the opportunity to work on a fascinating range of collections this year and the ones that I found especially interesting were shipboard diaries – as every acquisition represents new historical documentary evidence and another unique perspective on the experience of coming to New Zealand. The journal of Captain H B Nicholson (MSX-9427) is an item I first became acquainted with even before it came to the Library, when a German antiquarian book dealer placed it on the market by way of a finely produced illustrated catalogue, and I was approached by the manuscript curators to assist due to the fact that the description was in German – although the manuscript volume itself is written entirely in English.

The main challenge associated with the arrangement and description of the item was the question of the creator’s identity – something which put my research skills to the test. So who was ‘Capt. H B Nicholson’? After piecing together information from various sources, including shipping manifestos, I was able to come to the conclusion that the diary was written by Hugh Blomfield Nicholson (born 13 November 1866, died 10 December 1957), a British army officer who held the rank of captain and was taking a holiday in New Zealand together with three female travelling companions.

The diary describes experiences from the period 14 October 1897 to 1 April 1898 with almost daily entries – beginning with the departure from Albert Dock in London on the R.M.S. Kaikoura, followed by extensive inland and coastal journeys in New Zealand, and finally the return voyage back to England on the R.M.S. Tongariro. Journeys in New Zealand waters included the crossing of the Cook Strait on the Penguin, and an expedition on the S.S. Waikare from Port Chalmers to explore the sounds of Fiordland. This item will undoubtedly be of considerable interest to researchers looking at general unpublished first-hand accounts of the tourist experience in New Zealand at the very end of the nineteenth century.

Oettli, Max Christian, 1947-: Photographs of New Zealand scenes (accrual) - Dolores Hoy

Dolores Hoy. Photo by Catherine BisleyDolores Hoy. Photo by Catherine Bisley

This year the Turnbull Library received an accrual to a photographic collection of New Zealand scenes taken by Swiss born photographer Max Oettli who emigrated to New Zealand in 1957. Oettli lived in the ‘big smoke’ of Auckland City between the mid-1960s and 1975. He worked at the Elam School of Arts in the early 1970s, and was part of the establishment of Photoforum, a group which promoted the development of photography in New Zealand. A large part of his collection relates to his documentation of the social scene and city life around him. He captured images of streets, local characters, demonstrations, parties and pubs, parks and gardens, and portraits of his friends and acquaintances. It’s an Auckland that seems both familiar and strange to me. Some buildings and streets have disappeared; some are readily recognisable. Some well-known faces sport wild 70s hairstyles and fashions. The images are held on digital files which are currently in processing for deposit into the National Digital Heritage Archive (NDHA).

A favourite image in the collection shows a little girl licking the moving rubber handrail of an escalator in the Milne and Choyce department store in 1972. It was used as a Photoforum postcard. I wonder who she was…and if her tongue survived such a risky habit!


For more information about these, or any of the other collections at the Alexander Turnbull Library, please contact our friendly Research Enquiries team.

By Catherine Bisley

Catherine works part-time as an Arrangement and Description Librarian at the Turnbull. When she’s not at the Library she writes and directs films.

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Stephen Hamilton December 26th at 7:53PM

Hi Catherine
Fantastic to see the work being done at ATL, very impressive. Only one familiar face from my time with MSS&Archs back in the 90s, that being Tim's, of course. Returning to NZ in January and have every intention of visiting just as soon as I get settled. Regards, Stephen

Heather Mackay January 6th at 8:32AM

Love this annual highlight review that you do... linking to some of the collections gives an extra attractive taster.

Peter Ireland January 13th at 3:07PM

Congratulations to Library colleagues of Arrangement and Description. So many good things achieved here at the heart of the collections. If only I'd been aware that a 'pond crawl' was being offered. And Tim, lovely detail about the improvised aerial. Win, a special thank you for your patient work on the superb RP Moore collection. Take a bow, one and all.

max oettli April 21st at 11:44AM

The little escalator licker was actually in the department store complex known as 246 (246Queen St Auck)