Those of us who scurry around trying to find out about New Zealand’s past have long depended on the official yearbooks appearing most years since 1893. The yearbooks, produced by the Department of Statistics (as Statistics New Zealand used to be known), were most obviously a collation of statistics about the economy and society of this country. If you wanted to know how many letters had been sent in 1953 or the value of exports of rabbit skins in 1921, then the yearbook was the place to go. And, in addition to numbers, every yearbook included fascinating essays on particular topics. The 1903 one, for instance, had a revealing essay entitled ‘Maori sociology’, which tells as much about the social attitudes of Pākehā as of the social reality of Māori. We learn such things as: ‘The Maori is naturally of a dignified demeanour and a born orator.’ That volume also contains a detailed description of the hot baths of Rotorua and an intriguing analysis of the mineral composition of the different springs. I always find that when I go to look something up, I get waylaid by more engrossing content.
All this is now available on the screen of our laptop. Last evening Statistics New Zealand launched their digital yearbook collection. All the yearbooks up to 2008 are available on the web. Every individual yearbook, although not the whole collection, is word-searchable. And, even more valuable, the tables can be copied and pasted into Microsoft Excel; so you can put together your own time series and manipulate the statistics.
The collection is accompanied by a little disclaimer: ‘Historic issues of the yearbooks may contain language or views which reflect the time in which they were written and may be considered inappropriate or offensive today.’ But it is the record of precisely such attitudes that are so useful to us historians. The collection will be a godsend not only for historians but also other researchers, such as epidemiologists, who will now be able to very easily put together a time series about the causes of death.
The digital yearbooks join two other magnificent digital historic sources:
- Papers Past is a collection of historic newspapers from 1839 to 1945 produced by the National Library. It has been around for some years now but its collection has been growing all the time. The two most recent additions are the Maoriland Worker, that fundamental source of left-wing opinion in the years before and after the First World War, and the Press, one of Christchurch’s long-running institutions. This adds a valuable big-city perspective to the collection, which until recently has been stronger on the small towns than main centres. Papers Past provides word-searchability for most of the titles and this is a magnificent help for researchers. Last year when I attended a conference on New Zealand cultural history, most of the papers seemed to be based on discoveries from Papers Past. I confess that I delivered a paper on New Zealand memorials drawn heavily from a word search of the words ‘monument’ and ‘memorial’ in Papers Past.
- AtoJs Online is a digitisation of the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, another production of the National Library. This collection has recently been extended from the first volume in 1858 all the way through to 1914. The AtoJs are the official papers presented to Parliament; so they contain very detailed reports from government departments, much official correspondence and many inquiries and reports on particular issues.
If, for example, having read the yearbook of 1903 you are interested in the Rotorua hot baths, then the AtoJs for 1905 includes the 1903 reports of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, with excellent descriptions of the hot baths and ‘the Maori features at Rotorua’. It is easy to find because again the content is word-searchable (across all volumes this time), and your word is highlighted in yellow. So, now having got information from the AtoJs and the yearbook, all you need to do is go back to Papers Past and word search ‘Rotorua baths’ for 1903. You will find no less than 411 stories to read.
There was once a time when historical research involved a good deal of shoe leather, plenty of patience and no shortage of cash. You traipsed from archive to archive, waited endlessly until the volume you wanted was produced, and then you had the monotonous task of searching for your subject page by page. The digital revolution has transformed all this. There are few places in the world where searching the fundamental historical sources has become so easy. If the result is not an outpouring of exciting new discoveries, then we will be disappointed.
Thank you Statistics New Zealand and the National Library for bringing about this revolution. Historians are deeply in your debt. It’s now up to us to make the most of it all.