I spent about six weeks working at New Zealand’s national archives building in July / August 2009.
It was fascinating. The majority of their collection is stored on massive shelving units that each weigh about the same as a bus. Thanks to physics, much easier to move.
Photo taken with permission from Archives NZ
My time was spent retrieving items from the stacks and lots of digitizing. Some records are restricted; others are available for public viewing. I retrieved requests for a plane crash investigation from the 1920’s, coroner’s reports, wills, land development plans, etc.
Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII, and there are many WWII records at Archives NZ. One soldier’s diary describes his capture, imprisonment, and life as a POW in Italy in the early 1940’s. Another diary described a POW’s run-in at gun point with Mussolini. I also read how some POWs felt when they received their Canadian Red Cross care packages. Bars of soap! Chocolate! Real socks! The soldier wrote that the men would never, ever be able to find words to express how much joy the little care packages gave them, how they lived for these moments and that at times it was getting these small tokens that gave them enough hope to survive a few days more.
Individuals frequently look for war records of family members. As requests come in the files are scanned and put online for public viewing. It was difficult not to feel moved by the piles and piles of envelopes, knowing so many have the word ‘DECEASED’ generically stamped across the front page. One file had these words: "discharged due to wounds received in action. Location of wound: left leg. (Blown off)" Just like that. Blown off. In parentheses.
Perhaps most moving of all are the "Fit for Service" forms. One side of the paper might read "Farmer from Otago" and on the other side "Killed in Action, Gallipoli, June 10 1915."
Working at Archives NZ has given me a much greater appreciation of the written word.
Something I learned: UNESCO has created a program called the Memory of the World. Countries submit records believed to be significant to the recorded history of the human race. Everything from the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company Archival Records to the Wizard of Oz to the earliest known record of the Phoenician alphabet (“generally believed to be the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets” says Wikipedia) has been registered. As of August 2009 New Zealand has two records on the list – the Treaty of Waitangi and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition. Both of these documents are housed at Archives NZ and are available for the public to view, free of charge.
I think that's pretty cool.