Processing Dame Judith Binney’s collection

Contemporary collections at Turnbull Library

The Alexander Turnbull Library holds the archives and special collections of the National Library of New Zealand. We collect, preserve, and provide access to unpublished materials relating to New Zealand’s people and history. The Turnbull Library’s collections include everything from medieval manuscripts to political cartoons created just this week.

New collections coming into the Alexander Turnbull Library increasingly contain born digital materials. Born digital materials, unlike the traditional analogue unpublished materials collected by the Library, are items that have been created digitally: email, computer files, digital photographs, and much more.

Collections often include a mix of both analogue and digital materials, such as a box of papers and photograph albums that also contains a data CD. These collections that contain both born digital and analogue content are known as hybrid collections. For other collections, the digital content is the collection.

A shoebox full of floppy disks containing literary drafts.A shoebox full of floppy disks containing literary drafts from the Phillip Mann collection (MS-Group-0896) currently being processed by the Library. The digital files are copied from the disks, and preserved in the National Digital Heritage Archive. Photograph by Kirsty Cox.

Preparing born digital and hybrid collections for use by researchers is a collaborative effort, and involves staff from across the Library. Working with digital collections almost always involves a few challenges or surprises along the way!

Processing Dame Judith Binney’s collection

Portrait of Judith Binney.Gillian Mary Hanly, Judith Binney, 2006. Ref: PADL-001063.

In 2011, the Turnbull Library received a large collection of research materials from Dame Judith Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha Binney (1940-2011). Binney was a renowned historian in New Zealand and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Auckland, best known for her work on Māori communities and Ngāi Tūhoe in particular. Her books include Encircled lands, Stories without end, Tangata whenua, and Redemption songs.

The first lot of Binney’s papers were donated to the Library by her partner, Sebastian Black, and included over 20 linear metres of physical materials, such as papers, notebooks, photographs, photographic negatives, index cards, audio cassette tapes, video tapes, and awards.

The Library also received Binney’s Dell Latitude D820 laptop. The laptop contained 145 folders with 3034 files, and 18,301 emails — all up, 6.51 GB of data. Following the transfer of the digital files to a Library hard drive, we returned the laptop itself to the donor.

Because it was such a large collection, archival processing was slow, and involved a number of Library staff. Given Binney’s importance as a historian and the cultural significance of the collection, we gave the appraisal and arrangement of her materials careful consideration.

The papers and photographic materials in the Judith Binney collection were initially described as two separate groups (ATL-Group-1976 and PA-Group-00720). We made these available to researchers in 2013 while we kept working on the digital materials and analogue AV materials.

The AV materials included nearly 250 cassette tapes, video tapes, and digital audio files. Most of the interviews were conducted by Binney between 1977 and 1987, though some of the audio cassette tapes were recorded as recently as 2002. Some of the interview recordings had accompanying notes and transcripts, which have been cross-referenced in the records.

Packaged up tapes of oral history recordings, with handwritten notes.Judith Binney’s cassette tapes of oral history interviews with notes dated 20 May 1981 and 16 February 1983. Photograph by Valerie Love.

While processing the large quantities of papers, photographs, and cassette tapes was time-consuming, the volume of digital files in the collection presented its own set of challenges.

Binney’s email comprised 20 Outlook express backup files (.dbx), from her personal email address,, dating from 2001 to 2011. The mailboxes included inward and outward mail, mail sent to multiple correspondents including Binney, mailing list messages, chains of email messages, and many replies from Binney without the context of the original incoming message.

The amount of time required to assess even a sample of the 18,000 emails manually would have been prohibitive. Additionally, her laptop contained .msv files (Sony Memory Stick Voice files), which required a proprietary plug-in for access. And so we needed the right tools.

Hello, ePADD

In 2015 the Library began using ePADD, an open source tool developed by the Stanford University Libraries to facilitate the appraisal, ingest, processing, discovery, and delivery of email archives. By using ePADD, we could better assess the content from Judith Binney’s ten years of email messages.

Out of the twenty email folders and 18,301 email files, we decided not to keep five mailboxes with mainly system folders, or the Deleted Items folder. However, the spam mailbox was retained, as it contained a message that presumably had been moved (or filtered) to that folder by mistake, rather than actually being spam mail.

The fifteen electronic mailboxes remaining contained 15,665 emails dated January 2002 to May 2011. These messages were mainly related to Binney's career as an academic, writer, and board trustee. ePADD gave us a deeper understanding of the major topics, keywords, correspondents, and other information from her emails, as well as the number and types of attachments to messages. ePADD also flagged potentially sensitive information contained in email messages.

Screenshot of ePADD, showing numbers of emails in folders.A view from ePADD version 3.0, which calculates the number of messages in each mailbox folder.

As the bulk of the analogue collection related to her research as a historian, it was not surprising that her emails reflected this as well. Major topics in her email files related to Binney's academic career, seminars, conferences, travel, field research trips, and conversations with her publisher, Bridget Williams Books, and with other historians.

There were also many emails relating to Binney's roles as a board member for various cultural heritage institutions, including as a Guardian/Kaitiaki of the Alexander Turnbull Library. And of course, her email mailboxes included personal emails to Binney's family and friends.

Just as the description of analogue materials reflects Binney’s original order of index cards and subject folders, the arrangement and description of digital files reflects the original order of folders on her laptop. The digital email mailbox files have been described under a single descriptive record within the series of email and correspondence files.

The acquisition of contemporary email collections always creates potential sensitivities, as the authors of those incoming emails to Binney likely never imagined their messages would eventually become part of the Turnbull Library’s collections.

In order to protect the privacy of the colleagues, friends, and associates who emailed Binney over those years, a restriction has been placed on the email mailboxes, as well as the digital folders of professional correspondence. The other digital folders are available to registered researchers onsite in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room, as are the analogue materials in the collection.

The digital sound recordings in the collection were dated 2008-2009. When we were able to listen to the .msv files transferred from Binney’s laptop, we discovered that they weren’t complete interviews. But these small excerpts of conversations offer unique glimpses into Binney’s process as an oral historian. In order to ensure future access to them, the Library created access copies in .wav, an open format suitable for long term preservation.

Filed and findable

Once the digital files and other remaining materials in the collection were processed, including additional papers and photographs from Binney’s estate that the Library had received over the years, the collection’s finding aid was updated in Tiaki to reflect the full breadth of the collection.

A new reference number was assigned to the collection, ATL-Group-00190, and the components that had initially been described separately were re-integrated together. We also created new series records for the newly described email and correspondence, photographs, oral history materials, and audio and video recordings.

We are delighted that the entirety of this large, unique, and complex collection is now described and discoverable by researchers.

For further information, do contact our friendly Reading Room staff!

By Valerie Love

Valerie is the Senior Digital Archivist at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Nicole GastonNational Library October 9th at 11:36AM

This is so interesting Valerie! Great work making these materials available!