• Home
  • Blog
  • Highlights of 2021 from the Turnbull Library’s Arrangement & Description team

Highlights of 2021 from the Turnbull Library’s Arrangement & Description team

December 17th, 2021 By Sascha Nolden

The annual retrospective with observations and reflections from the Turnbull Library team who make our collections easier to find and use.

Arrangement & Description team whakatauākī

Kia whakarite, kia whakamārama, kia tauhere ki te ao | To arrange, to describe, to connect with the world


Welcome to the end-of-year blog where members of the Arrangement & Description team (A&D team) take the opportunity to introduce themselves and review one of the collections they have worked on. It is great to see four new colleagues contributing to this blog for the first time.

The work of the A&D team continues to reflect the broad range of cultural heritage material, both digital and analogue, being collected by the Library. A&D processes these to ensure collections are described to international standards to facilitate discoverability for research, and housed and archived for preservation and permanent storage.


Sascha Nolden (editor), Harper Burtenshaw, William Daymond, Rata Holtslag, Dolores Hoy, Adam Melville, Kimberley Mobbs, Dr Sascha Nolden, Dr Susan Skudder, Katrina Tamaira, and Sheena Tawera.

Harper Burtenshaw, Intern

A woman stands between two tall shelving units that hold folders of printed material and collection items.
Harper Burtenshaw, photograph by Sascha Nolden

Kia ora, my name is Harper and I am currently completing an internship with the A&D team at the Alexander Turnbull Library, contributing to capturing metadata from the Ephemera B collection. My goal is to discover folders that do not have a descriptive record and then help the team to create a record that will be available to the public online.

When I began this internship, I must admit that I had to search for what an ephemera collection was. The definition of ‘Ephemera’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”. This definition makes the Library’s Ephemera Collection somewhat ironic, as those at the Alexander Turnbull Library capture fleeting moments of the past but are going to be enjoyed for a very long time.

So far, folders may contain anywhere between one and 97 pieces of ephemera. These are little pieces of New Zealand’s history, whether they be a singular piece of ticker tape from the 2003 America’s Cup Victory parade in Wellington, a collection of soft drink labels from the 1930s, or a collection of paper bags from the 1980s. Each one tells a story or helps to put the pieces together of a bigger story.

Getting to open each of these folders and examine these pieces of ephemera has made me appreciate all the little parts of New Zealand’s history. These are the parts of history that you would miss if you blinked, the parts that are taped up to street corners dropped in our letterboxes or thrown in our recycling bins. I have come to appreciate the significance of the Ephemera Collection, and the vibrant picture of New Zealand’s history which it paints.

The items of ephemera that I have found most interesting are those under the subject heading ‘Woman’, and pieces concerning women’s rights.

It is compelling to see how far feminism has come, and simultaneously, how little has changed.

I am proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this wonderful collection. And I hope that my work over these two months will enable members of the public to enjoy and access these items of ephemera too.

William Daymond, Librarian

A man reaches up to take a large reel to reel tape contained in a cardboard box from off the shelving unit where hundreds of similar tapes are stored.
William Daymond, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Ode Record Company Ltd

I joined the Arrangement & Description team in December 2020, just a few days after completing my Masters in Museum and Heritage Practice. I was already familiar with the Library, as one of the major components of my Masters had involved adding additional metadata to the scant details of the cassette collection of the Flying Nun Records master tapes. But nothing could prepare me for learning the various protocols when it came to processing the wide range of materials that come through A&D, and as a result, this last year has been one of the most challenging but ultimately rewarding years of my professional career.

One of the more interesting tasks I have completed over the past twelve months involved processing the master tapes of another New Zealand record label, the not as well known but just as important Ode Record Company.

Ode Record Company Ltd: Recordings and related material (ATL-Group-00145)

Whereas Flying Nun deals predominantly with indie rock, Ode has a wider and more internationally based back catalogue, covering jazz, classical, pop, rock, folk, country, and several albums which were recorded overseas, particularly in the Pacific Islands.

Two notable New Zealand artists who recorded for Ode are renowned Māori singer Prince Tui Teka, and Russ le Roq who went on to become more well known as the actor Russell Crowe.

My task was to put unique identifiers on the master tape boxes and tape cases, store the tapes in acid-free bags, take out any supplementary papers and eventually store them in the basement.

Some of the supplementary documentation was entertaining to read, ranging from a handwritten note explaining how the country band recording session in someone’s living room was hindered because the drummer arrived late and the lead singer had a sore throat or a note describing how the recording session of a police pipe band in Fiji was partially ruined because the signal path that the microphones were operating on was being interfered with by the frequency of the local radio station and as a result several of the songs were unusable.

Rata Holtslag, Librarian

A woman is seated at a large white table holding a small colourful painting, on the table sit another painting and newspaper clippings.
Rata Holtslag, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Dame Janet Paul and Alister Austen Deans watercolours

I’m Rata, a fairly new addition to the A&D team, having started in January of this year, on secondment while Merryn McAulay is working on the Utaina project.

Before that, I was a Library Assistant with the Collection Care team at the Turnbull, so I was already familiar with the Library’s collections and processes before moving into my current role. During my first year in the team, I’ve worked on some fascinating collections, so it’s very difficult to decide which are worthy of inclusion in a blog post.

However, as an Art History alumna, the collections I am always most eager to work on are those with an art component.

A recent favourite was a collection donated to the Library in 2019 by Jeavons Baillie (the Library’s first Conservator, back in the 1970s), and John Macdonald. The collection comprised nine works on paper by various artists.

A favourite in this collection is Janet Paul’s (also an ex-Turnbullian!) watercolour portrait of Ma Loo, a Thorndon fruiterer, painted in 1981.

Paul, Janet Elaine (Dame), 1919-2004: Mrs Loo (C-185-026)

I love that this work feels both vibrant and humdrum; Paul has used bright colours and bold prints to convey an ordinary, familiar scene. The focus is very much on Ma Loo, who was born in Canton in 1910 and migrated to New Zealand in 1952. She was well known by Thorndon locals for her cheeky sense of humour and words of advice.

This work – coupled with the newspaper article that accompanied the donation, written by Dinah Priestly shortly after Ma Loo’s death in 2006 – is a unique record of the life of Ma Loo, who represents two groups of people whose stories often go untold; immigrants and “regular”, working-class citizens.

Another favourite work in this collection is Alister Austen Deans’ watercolour depicting Mount Grey in North Canterbury.

Deans, Alister Austen, 1915-2011: Mt Grey (A-473-145)

Like many of his contemporaries, Deans’ work was borne out of a love of the Canterbury landscape, and he was best known for his landscape watercolours, often made en plein air.

This work appealed to me as I did a short stint as an intern for the A A Deans Art Trust while I was a student at the University of Canterbury. I got to visit Deans’ home in Mount Peel and catalogue some of his works. Having the opportunity to describe one of Deans’ works several years after this internship felt like a real full-circle moment.

Dolores Hoy, Research Librarian, Digital Materials

A smiling woman is seated at a large white table on which a selection of collection items are displayed.
Dolores Hoy, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Christopher Truman Collection

You may have heard the term ‘hybrid’ in relation to collections held at Turnbull. This usually refers to collections that contain a mix of analogue and born-digital materials. This year I worked on a fascinating hybrid collection created by Christopher Truman, also known as Dog Tucker Truman, that not only mixed the analogue with the digital but mixed genres and forms of material.

Truman, Christopher Patrick Francis, 1955-: Collection (ATL-Group-00444)

At the time of deposit, circa 2019-2020, Chris Truman lived an itinerant lifestyle in which he travelled and worked around New Zealand. His collection reflects his life experiences as a bushman, deer culler, hunter, cartoonist, music fan, family member, and "shiner" (or swagman), and his experiences with depression and hardship.

During his time on the road, he took digital photographs and produced works that combine elements of various forms: scrapbook, memoir, creative graphic novel, and literary text. These works do not fit easily into conventional archival or artistic categories.

The collection comprises 21 sketchpads, sketchbooks, exercise books, and bound volumes, and 526 born-digital photographs depicting “old school” New Zealand and portraits of people he met during his travels. The content of the analogue items shifts between prose and poem, autobiographical text, cartoons, watercolour and ink drawings, creative non-fiction, photocopies, and pasted in photographs.

Some items contain reworkings of his earlier published cartoon characters and graphic works, and some items feature creative works newly created on the road. Truman has also included the stories and photographs of people he met during his travels.

Within this collection, I find a vivid and sometimes poignant expression of Truman’s life and the lives of others.

The accession was an unusual one for the Library as it reflects the life experiences of people who are not often represented in our collections.

Adam Melville, Research Librarian, Digital Materials

A smiling man is seated at a desk with two monitors and also a display of books on the table.
Adam Melville, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Braille Collective Oral History Project

The variety of content and surprise is one of the things I enjoy about working at ATL. And during 2021, the oral history collections that crossed my workbench provided plenty of both.

Mental health services, the establishment of a synagogue in Auckland, education programmes, the Antarctic, herpetofauna (a branch of zoology studying reptiles and amphibians), the construction of hydroelectric power stations, and creative music in Wellington are just some of the subjects I have encountered this year during my work with oral histories.

Braille Collective Oral History Project (OHColl-1239)

It was great to be able to work with the Braille Collective Oral History Project, as it is an area of personal interest. The collection contains interviews with eight members of The Braille Collective, a Wellington-based group formed circa 1980 by musicians performing and recording experimental music. It may not be as sizable as some of the other collections I have worked with this year, but it is fascinating and informative nonetheless.

It was great to hear artists — whom I have heard perform on numerous occasions over the past two decades — speaking about the improvised music scene 10-20 years before I became involved in it myself.

The oral history collections I have been processing largely consist of born-digital materials — not only audio recordings, but also supporting documents such as interview abstracts, family history information, and photographs and scans.

This requires the digital specialists in the Arrangement & Description team to work closely with the Digital Archivists. Their role (among many other things) includes providing technical metadata about the individual files and safely transferring the digital content from their original carriers (including hard drives, USB thumb drives, optical discs) to the servers.

This enables us to access the files without altering them as we process the collection and load the content into the National Digital Heritage Archive (NDHA) for long-term preservation and access.

Oral history collections are available for listening/viewing in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room and have proven to be a popular choice for users of the Virtual Reading Room Pilot which facilitates remote access for those unable to visit the Library.

Kimberley Mobbs, Librarian

A woman stands behind a table on which sit a selection of colourful cards and illustrations, she is holding one example in her hands with white gloves.
Kimberley Mobbs, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Ephemera relating to the Chinese community and Chinese immigrants in New Zealand

My primary role at the Library is as a Library Assistant for the Collection Care team. However, in October 2021 I was offered the opportunity to work part-time in the Arrangement and Description team on secondment. This has been an exciting learning opportunity for me.

For the past three months, I have been focused on the ephemera collection, working through old accessions to the collection. This has involved creating retrospective records and placing items in their permanent location. While I was concerned that focusing on just one area might become a bit repetitive, this work has been anything but.

The Library’s ephemera collection includes many formats including leaflets, tickets, stickers, flyers, and more. This diversity is reflected in the topics the ephemera is about. In my work, I’ve learnt about horse racing, local political campaigns, and even numismatics, from all over New Zealand.

Growing up, my family was one of few Chinese families in our town. We would frequently drive for over two hours to find authentic Chinese restaurants, and Chinese New Year celebrations were humble, limited to our living room!

Coming across the ephemera labelled ‘Ethnic Chinese’ was therefore particularly exciting and somewhat unexpected. Even more exciting were the pamphlets within. Ephemera is a truly unique format with the ability to tell stories about the events and the people within a community at a certain time and place. I was fortunate enough to process these materials, produced and distributed in 2017.

Ephemera of octavo size relating to the Chinese community and Chinese immigrants in New Zealand (Eph-A-ETHNIC-Chinese-2017)

By 2017, there were a huge number of events celebrating Chinese culture hosted around the country including Chinese New Year festivals and celebrations, Chinese film festivals, Moon Festivals, and even museum exhibits and events.

If I were a child now, I have no doubt that there would be an abundance of opportunities to participate in and celebrate Chinese culture. Seeing how much has changed in just a few decades warmed my heart.

Dr Sascha Nolden, Research Librarian

A smiling man wearing white gloves holds a leather bound book open with a dozen other examples on the table in front of him.
Dr Sascha Nolden, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Records of the Royal Society of New Zealand

For me, one of the highlights this year was working on the records of the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi

Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi: Records (ATL-Group-00510)

The Royal Society, formerly known as the New Zealand Institute, is a statutory entity founded in 1867, as an umbrella organisation for regional societies around New Zealand. The change in name to Royal Society came about in 1933 and Te Apārangi was added in 2007; the name was then abbreviated to Royal Society Te Apārangi in 2017.

The collection comprising 78 boxes of papers and 38 bound volumes and ledgers, including financial records, library loan registers, minute books, and letterbooks of outward correspondence, was donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2020.

Of special interest is the series of 12 letterbooks in stationery binding from the period 1869 to 1935, plus one earlier volume of letters from the period 10 June 1868 to 29 September 1869, which was already held by the Library from an earlier donation.

The twelve newly processed volumes of letterbooks are at Library reference MSX-10052 to MSX-10056 and MSY-8395 to MSY-8401.

The letterbooks not only represent one of the important administrative functions of the organisation but also provide a fascinating insight into the evolving physicality and mechanics of communication during this period.

Moving from copying press facsimile copies of manuscript correspondence, produced by a damp textile being used in a press to transfer ink of the original letter to the tissue paper (often resulting in some excess moisture leaving characteristic damp-staining and wrinkling of the pages), to volumes of a later date showing a combination of typescript carbon copies and manuscript letters, or typescripts with manuscript additions and annotations. The annotations and additions in graphite and colour pencil add an additional layer of context and research value to these unique and often only extant copies of the correspondence.

Many of the letterbooks also feature an alphabetised index to the correspondents at either the front or the back of the volume. The individual leaves or folios in the letterbooks are often numbered and the index refers to these folio numbers rather than the date of a letter.

The outward correspondence relates to organisational matters of the Society, including the nomination and election of members and fellows, publication and distribution of the transactions and proceedings, and the administration of research funding and awards. The indices to the correspondents are a New Zealand and international who’s who of scientists and scientific organisations and altogether this collection represents enormous research value for the history of science in New Zealand.

Dr Susan Skudder, Research Librarian

A woman wearing white gloves stands behind large white table on which sit a laptop and cards filed together in long boxes.
Dr Susan Skudder, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Geoffrey Thornton photographs relating to industrial and construction heritage

Every Arrangement and Description team has a backlog of material awaiting processing; and we must have ways of prioritising what material gets processed first, as well as accommodating other, sometimes unexpected, overriding priorities for processing.

One of the ways of managing the processing of large collections is to do the work over time, and there are various ways of doing that. You can set aside one day a week for a particular collection and work through it until it is done, while working on other material the rest of the time. Alternatively, you can select a certain quantity or format of material to process, and once that is finished, move on to another collection, and come back to another piece of the large collection later.

This latter method is what I have been using with the Geoffrey Garth Thornton collection of photographic material in various formats showing historic structures in New Zealand.

Thornton, Geoffrey Garth, 1922-2017: Papers and photographs relating to industrial and construction heritage ( ATL-Group-00164)

Geoffrey Thornton was an architect who worked for the Ministry of Works and was also involved with the Historic Places Trust (now New Zealand Heritage Pouhere Taonga). Thornton was interested in New Zealand’s construction heritage not only of buildings but also industrial and other structures, such as bridges, lime kilns, hop kilns, and mining batteries. He published books about bridges, rural churches, industrial heritage, and farm buildings. He took many photographs over five decades in all parts of New Zealand.

I started processing the Thornton collection in 2016, with several large tower-like containers and many small plastic boxes of mounted transparencies (slides). Over subsequent years I have worked on and off with a large set of negatives and prints, organised by Thornton into subjects, such as bridges, farm buildings, Māori churches, commercial buildings, woolsheds, and houses.

Processing this material takes a while because of the way they were originally stored. Thornton kept each negative and corresponding print together in a glassine bag, labelled with the name or type of structure and the location.

We cannot keep them like that in the Library, for several reasons, the first being that the glassine bags may become acidic or even stick to the negative or print. In addition, negatives require different storage from prints – they must be cold, and therefore are kept in what we call the “2-degree room”.

Further, it would be difficult for researchers to handle and use the negatives and prints if they were still in the glassine bags, some of which are sealed at the bottom with deteriorating and sticky adhesive tape.

I separate the negatives from the prints, put each negative in a numbered acid-free envelope, and add it to a list in a spreadsheet, which I will later upload to our database, ‘Tiaki’. I put the prints into polypropylene sleeves, four to a sleeve. The prints must also be numbered and later added to the database. In the negative list, there must be an entry that relates each print to the negative with which it was originally stored. That is what we call its “original order” and it is good arrangement and description practice to ensure that intellectually the negative and print can be linked in the database, even if I have separated them physically.

This process may seem like a lot of work, but processing the contents of each glassine bag is quite fast. It is just that there are a lot of them! The work is that tricky combination of repetitive manual action and having to pay attention (and think!) that characterises a lot of arrangement and description work.

The processing would take a lot longer if Thornton had not labelled the bags, and I am grateful to him for his orderliness. He was also a very good photographer and there are some wonderful photographs of bridges and industrial structures. Some of the photographs are of buildings and other structures that no longer exist, because of time, redevelopment, or natural disasters like the Canterbury earthquakes.

His collection is a great resource about New Zealand’s built and industrial heritage, and it has been a pleasure to work with it.

Katrina Tamaira (Ngāti Tūwharetoa), Kaipupuri Rangahau Māori, Research Librarian Māori

A woman with one white glove holds a small badge in her hand and stands beside a large white table that has an arrangement of items including a t-shirt, other badges, slides and illustrations.
Katrina Tamaira, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

HART Aotearoa Collection

Kia ora tātou, as I am relatively new to the team (joining it permanently from March), 2021 has been a year full of learning. Usually, I am tasked with processing photographic prints and manuscripts, but I am getting to finish off this year processing formats with which I am completely unfamiliar: textiles and badges.

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Springbok Tour protests. Given the surge in interest in this topic, several of the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collections relating to the protests were surfaced by staff and researchers, and with that came the need to further process some of the material to make it more readily accessible.

Rata recently processed a series of photographs and negatives by photographer Mark Hantler. These were taken at Springbok Tour protests in Wellington, Palmerston North, and Auckland in 1981. The two of us are now processing other apartheid-era material from the Halt All Racist Tours (HART) Aotearoa collection.

HART Aotearoa: Collection (ATL-Group-00606)

This collection has been with the Library for many years, so it is what we would call a ‘retro task’, an existing collection that requires enhancement. The first accession was donated in 1986, and the last in 1995, after South African apartheid was disestablished and HART wound down as an organisation.

Conservation practises have moved on since the 1990s, so Rata and I were asked to identify material that may need conservation treatment, specifically t-shirts, and banners. And banners we did find — at least 10 of them, alongside t-shirts, stickers, badges, slides, and fliers.

It will be a challenge to mentally map how to process the various formats, but one we look forward to. Although I’m not quite old enough to remember the ’81 tour, I’m very much a product of that time and feel lucky to be part of preserving that slice of history.

Sheena Tawera, Librarian

A smiling woman stands behind a large white table with A4 size papers neatly arranged in a display, she is holding one example.
Sheena Tawera, photograph by Llewellyn Jones

Arohata Prison and Department of Corrections fliers

In 2021, I again had the pleasure of working with ephemera collection items that were donated by both members of the public and Alexander Turnbull Library staff.

I spent half a day per week describing ephemera under the tutelage of my Arrangement & Description team colleague Dr Susan Skudder. I found working with a variety of analogue formats (greeting cards, leaflets, programmes, posters, bookmarks) made the process of arranging and describing ephemera interesting and enjoyable.

One item I found to be of particular interest was a donation of six pieces of ephemera, relating to a 2021 Matariki concert held at Arohata Women’s prison in Tawa, Wellington.

Arohata Prison and Department of Corrections fliers (Eph-A-JULY-AUGUST-2021/1)

The pieces of ephemera consist of a concert programme of events, two promotional fliers for the New Zealand Department of Corrections, a hand-drawn bookmark, a bilingual waiata booklet, and a multi-sponsor promotional flyer.

Of note is the beautiful and poetic use of te reo Māori in the Arohata Wahine 2021 waiata booklet. Drawing on the regenerative and empowering themes of Matariki, whānau and mana wāhine, the words of the waiata tira, whakaeke, mōteatea, waiata ā ringa, poi, haka, and whakawātea in the booklet to me are inspirational, as are the performers who would have participated in this concert.

For example, here is an excerpt from the first three lines of the waiata tira (choral piece) – entitled ‘Matariki’, from the bilingual waiata booklet:

Whakahāngaitia te titiro | Focusing my sight
Kia mātai ake ki ngā whētu | To gaze at the stars
I te tāhūhū nui o te rangi tūhāhā e | The great dome in the evening sky

The Matariki theme is reinforced by the artwork: the seven stars of Matariki are depicted on the concert programme of events, and the bookmark features artwork designed by wāhine of Arohata Women’s Prison for the Matariki Concert.

While ephemera is defined as items that are not intended to last, I am happy to have been able to arrange and describe this item for researchers to discover and connect with, due to its uplifting and enduring kaupapa.

Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu | Although it is small, it is made of greenstone.

Post a blog comment

(Your email will never be made public)
Lindsay Shelton
13 January 2022 11:16am

Such great work. Such great collections.

Peter Ireland
22 December 2021 9:02am

Agree with Chris, the A&D favourites blog post is a highlight of the year. Many new faces and perspectives adding to the mix and what a nice way to meet new staff. Thanks to everyone for their contribution. When all is said and done, the collections, in their delight and breadth are at the heart of what we do. Could we have more of these please?