Part 2: The National Library of New Zealand's digital collections and services

Digital access to information and services: Learning from examples.

In this Part, we discuss:

Summary of findings

The Library has been putting information and services online since the early 1980s. Its website provides information and services to a wide range of people and has led to:

  • greater access to information about the collections;
  • greater access to digital information; and
  • increased and improved services.

The information and services that the Library provides met our expectations about openness, availability, reasonable pricing, and reusability. Its strategic documents also align with the Government's goal of openness and transparency. The Library is continually working to improve access to its collections and improve its services.

The Library's website meets most of the government-approved web standards for usability and accessibility. However, there are opportunities to improve, and the Library plans to do so.

The Library has already identified some accessibility issues on its website, and the independent assessor identified some issues that the Library was not aware of. This highlights the value of occasionally having websites independently assessed.

The Library collects basic information about how many people visit its website. It also publicly reports on a range of measures about new acquisitions to collections, the provision of online records for these, and the provision of content the Library has digitised.

The Library can use this information to learn more about how people use and reuse digital information and the benefits from it. It can continue to tailor services to people's needs and encourage greater use and reuse of its digital information. We encourage the Library to contact new users and/or target groups and engage with its current users in new ways.

It can be difficult and time-consuming for the Library to identify which public entity has decision-making responsibility for the Crown copyright status of certain documents. This can be inefficient and does not contribute to the Government's goal of openness and transparency. We consider that it would be helpful if one particular government agency were responsible for managing Crown copyright.

The Library and its role

The Library consists of the Alexander Turnbull Library and the National Library. In 2011, the Library became part of the Department of Internal Affairs.

The National Library's collections hold most New Zealand publications. People cannot take documents from the Library. Instead, they can borrow documents through their local public, community, or business library (called an interloan), and people can copy documents in accordance with the provision of the Copyright Act 1994.

The Alexander Turnbull Library is a research and reference library that holds many unique published and unpublished documents about New Zealand and its people. Its collections also include a substantial collection of material for a selected number of Pacific Island countries.

The Alexander Turnbull Library must keep its documents forever. The Alexander Turnbull Library collects and accepts donations. It also accepts documents that meet its collecting policies and plans.

Although the Library's main role is to give people access to documents created by others, it does create a few documents of its own. The main documents that it creates are metadata sets.

Metadata is the descriptive information about a document, such as the author's name, the publisher, and subject headings.3 Metadata enables people to find catalogued documents. The Library uses terms set out in the international standards for different types of documents so they can be easily found in online searches.

So far, the Library has created eight metadata sets. An example of these metadata sets is Index New Zealand, a searchable database that contains abstracts and descriptions of articles from about 1000 periodicals and newspapers from the early 1900s to the present day.

The Library is a lead agency for the country's public, community, and business libraries. It manages nationwide functions, including:

  • the Aotearoa People's Network Kaharoa network, a partnership service enabling free internet access in public libraries that are part of the network;
  • legal deposit (all publishers in New Zealand must deposit their publications with the National Librarian); and
  • the public lending right for authors (this gives authors, illustrators, and editors payments that recognise that their books are available in New Zealand libraries).

Since the 1930s, the Library has provided the national union catalogue – a combined catalogue of New Zealand libraries. The catalogue was a first step towards a national interloan scheme and was put online in 1982. This early digitisation of the catalogue shows that the Library has a long history of working online.

Overview of the Library's digitisation process

An increasing number of digital documents are being created in an increasing range of formats. The creation of physical documents being created also continues to increase, but at a slower rate than digital documents. This means that the Library needs to collect, store, and make available digital and physical documents in usable formats.

Digitising physical documents takes a lot of time and intensive work. Digitisation is not as simple as scanning a piece of paper or a photograph and uploading the scanned file to the Library's website.

Digitising physical documents is a technical process that must be completed in a particular way, including following relevant legislation and international data standards. Throughout the digitisation process, staff must keep meticulous records showing how they have handled each document and what decisions they have made.

It takes a longer time for the Library staff to complete the digitisation process for a single document or collection of documents when, for example, the copyright status of the document is unclear, the physical document is in poor condition, or the needed methods, equipment, or staff are not readily available. For some documents, such as audio-visual documents, the digitisation process can take a long time.

The Library and Archives New Zealand have worked together to identify the steps in their digitisation process. Their process has four phases: scope, plan, process, and delivery. The four phases are made up of 13 stages and 43 detailed steps. Suitably qualified staff are involved at each step.

A physical document that has been digitised might need to be re-digitised in future. The situation is the same for documents created in a digital format (born-digital documents). For example, a word processing file from 10 years ago might not be compatible with current software.

The Library needs to ensure that its digital documents are always in a usable format. Depending on the circumstances, staff might be able to convert the digital document into a new and compatible format or they might need to re-digitise the original physical document. The relevant process will need to be repeated as many times as required to keep documents accessible for as long as they are in the online collections.

The complexities and challenges of digitising information and providing digital information and services need to be well understood and managed. It can be easy to underestimate the time and intensive work required.

What we looked at and how we carried out our audit

We looked at whether the Library's collective online presence4 has led to greater access to information and improved services. In particular, we looked at:

  • whether the Library's strategic aims align with the Declaration on Open and Transparent Government (the Declaration);
  • whether the Library's collective online presence was open, readily available, reasonably priced, reusable, and well managed;
  • whether the Library's website meets the government-approved web standards for usability and accessibility; and
  • whether the Library's collective online presence has led to greater access to information and improved services.

The Government approved the Declaration and the New Zealand Data and Information Management Principles (the Principles) in August 2011. They are not an exact fit for the Library's digital work.

We applied a broader interpretation of the Declaration's definition of public data to better reflect the Library's work. We based our expectations about the Library's collective online presence on the Principles.

We reviewed documents that the Library gave us and that are available online. We interviewed many of the Library's senior staff and the Department of Internal Affairs' senior staff. We sought advice from a former President of the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa, and a Victoria University of Wellington professor who has an interest in measuring outcomes for libraries.

We decided to audit the Library's website against the government-approved web standards because it is the Library's main website. We commissioned an independent assessment of the website's accessibility and usability. The assessment was performed in January 2017. We shared the results with the Library straight away so it could make (or plan to make) any improvements in a timely way.

Strategic documents align with government priorities and requirements

We expected the Library's strategic documents to align with the Government's goal of openness and transparency. The main strategic documents we looked at were Turning knowledge into value: Strategic directions to 2030 and the Digitisation Strategy 2014-17.

The Library's strategic documents align with the Government's goal of openness and transparency. The strategic documents aim to ensure that:

  • people can access the Library's online collections through catalogues and connect with other libraries' collections through the Te Puna service (a single point of discovery for New Zealand library catalogues); and
  • the Library makes increasing amounts of digital information available for people to use, share, and reuse.

The Library's strategic documents generally align with the Declaration and fully align with the National Library of New Zealand (Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa) Act 2003. The Act directs the Library to preserve, protect, develop, and make accessible its collections with the aim of enriching New Zealanders' cultural and economic life and connecting us with the rest of the world.

The Library's policies (such as those covering access, collections, collection use and reuse, and preservation) align with its strategic documents, the Declaration, and the Principles.5

Digital information and services met our expectations

The information and services that the Library provides met our expectations that the services available would display openness, ready availability, reasonable pricing, and reusability. The Library is streamlining its rights statements to improve consistency and to customise them to meet New Zealand's cultural and ethical expectations.

Unless there is a valid reason to restrict access, people can get information about all the Library's collections through its website.

The Library rarely restricts access to content. We are satisfied that, when it does this, the reasons are valid. The reasons might include when the content:

  • is under copyright and permission is not given by the rights holder;
  • cannot be released under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993; or
  • is deemed sensitive for cultural reasons.

People can look for documents on the Library's website for free, and many of the documents can be downloaded for free. Where the Library charges for copying documents, the cost is transparent, consistent, and reasonable.

The Library meets performance measures for releasing catalogue records and documents in a timely way, sets priorities for making digital information available, and makes decisions based on research and the need to preserve at-risk documents. Documents that the Library creates and is the rights holder for (that is, most of the metadata sets on its website) are given Crown copyright and the least restrictive Creative Commons license.6

There is one area in which the Library has made slower progress than planned. Under its Digitisation Strategy 2014-17, the Library planned to identify its main collections and prioritise them for digitisation. This work was put on hold until the new strategy to 2030 was completed in December 2016. The new strategy to 2030 takes a broader approach and requires the Library to work with other libraries to set digitisation priorities throughout New Zealand.

The Library met our expectations for managing its digital information. We found that the Library:

  • takes a life-cycle approach to managing the collections, which is supported by a documented process for digitising physical documents;
  • through its digital preservation practices, ensures that digital information is kept in usable formats over time;
  • caters for changes in the way people access digital information by:
    • ensuring that metadata meets international standards, so documents can be found using search tools and search engines; and
    • adapting to the way that people look for information online – for example, search results will include relevant documents from the Library's collections in the first page of results in a user-friendly format;
  • works with a wide range of organisations7 and the public to ensure that tools and shared services support people and library managers throughout the country;
  • makes access to the collections easier through various means, such as consolidating its websites (from 75 websites to about 19), using the DigitalNZ application programming interface to power its website search functions, adding digital information that is out of copyright or where no copyright restrictions apply, and sharing digital information through social media;
  • enables people to access information from international libraries and makes its online information and services accessible to people overseas; and
  • has some projects under way to deal with some copyright issues to improve access to digital information and speed up the pace at which the information is available under the least restrictive permissions.

The Library has identified some matters that it needs to address to improve its effectiveness, policies, and strategic aims. It has projects under way or scheduled to address these issues. For example, the Library has analysed the feedback from people through various channels and is taking a continuous-improvement approach to its services.

Dealing with copyright and licensing issues is a day-to-day part of the Library's work. Staff need to understand the copyright status of each document so they can inform people about how the digital information can be used. Unless copyright has expired, the Library needs permission from the copyright holder to digitise physical documents.

The Library has two main copyright projects under way:

  • It plans to streamline its rights statements and use of Creative Commons licenses to produce a consistent set of information to people. The aim is to make more digital information available and make it easier for people to know what they can and cannot do with documents.
  • It is working with the Department of Internal Affairs – Births, Deaths and Marriages to introduce a more systematic method for knowing when a creator's copyright on a document expires. The aim is to ensure that staff can provide documents with as few restrictions as practicable after a copyright holder's death.

There is one copyright matter that the Library does not have authority to resolve. For some government documents, the Library can find it difficult to identify a decision-maker for Crown copyright issues. This is particularly difficult when the creating entity no longer exists.

The result of these difficulties can be that the Library cannot digitise physical documents or needs to apply limits on the use of digital information because it cannot get a decision from "the Crown".

In these circumstances, it can be time-consuming for the Library to resolve copyright issues. This is inefficient and is a barrier to achieving the Government's goal to release public information in a timely way. We consider that it would be helpful if one particular government agency were responsible for managing Crown copyright.

A usable and accessible website

We had an independent assessor assess the usability and accessibility of the Library's website against the government-approved web standards.

The Library's website meets almost all of the government-approved web standards. Even so, there are opportunities to improve, and the Library plans to do so. The independent assessor told us that the Library scored the highest of all the government agencies' websites that they had audited. There were 69 applicable standards, and the Library met 56 of them, as shown in Figure 1. It also met five recommendations of the usability standard.

Figure 1
Government-approved web standards met by the National Library

Web Usability Standard 1.2 Web Accessibility Standard 1.0 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Total
Level A Level AA
6 23 19 8 56

Note: Level A is the least acceptable level of accessibility. Level AA represents good practice, because meeting it makes information accessible to more people.

The effects of the Library not fully meeting some of the usability standards are that people:

  • might be uncertain about the Library's use of private information; and
  • with limited bandwidth or data caps could be frustrated because links to downloadable files do not show the file's format and size.

The effect of the Library not fully meeting the accessibility standards are that people with visual impairments, who do not use a mouse and who use screen readers or text-to-speech browsers:

  • might miss information;
  • must repeat steps before getting the information that they want; or
  • find that the information does not display correctly in their browsers.

The Library's awareness of accessibility issues

The Library has a section on its website that lists some of the website's significant accessibility issues. This is so people know what issues staff have already identified and are working on. The section also discusses the potential problems that these issues could cause people.

The Library provides an email address for people to report any unidentified accessibility problems. In this way, the Library has made it easy for people to provide feedback when their expectations are not met.

The independent assessor identified seven issues with the website. The Library was unaware of five of these issues. This highlights the value of government agencies having their websites independently assessed. In our view, the assessment that we commissioned was reasonably priced, ruling out cost as a potential barrier to public entities of occasionally commissioning an independent assessment.

The Library told us that it plans to improve implementing web standards as priorities, staffing, and budgets allow. The Library staff will add any outstanding improvements to the backlog.

The Library staff will make most of the improvements as part of the Library's plans to ensure that more of its public-facing websites are adapted to different devices. (Some of the websites have already been adapted.)

The Library is doing this work because an increasing proportion of people are using mobile devices to browse the internet, which means that websites need to be adaptable to different screen sizes and orientations.

A good start to understanding the benefits of digitising services

There is no accepted method in New Zealand or internationally that national libraries can use to assess the benefits of increasing people's access to digital information. This is because many of the benefits are intangible. National libraries from overseas are experimenting with ways to assess the benefits of their digital services.

The Library is performing some activities, but there is an opportunity for it to consider some new approaches in the next few years.

The Library takes two main approaches to monitoring access to its collections:

  • monitoring increased access to information available to people through the Library's websites; and
  • monitoring website traffic.

The Library also carries out a limited range of activities to get insight into people's needs and satisfaction. For example, the Library performs surveys of known groups (such as librarians) and considers comments received online and in person. We consider that such information is useful for identifying potential improvements the Library can make to its services and for measuring the effectiveness of their implementation.

However, these activities do not amount to a co-ordinated approach to understanding the benefits that access to digital information produces for people and their communities. We consider that, when the Library learns more about how people use the collections, it will also learn more about the benefits of increasing access to digital information and how it can be more effective in tailoring services to people's needs.

The Library recognises that it could do more to fully understand these benefits. We consider that, now that the Library's new strategy to 2030 is completed, it is the right time for the Library to reconsider how it could assess the benefits of digital information to its communities.

The Library took part in a research project, which we consider is a good first step. The Canadian InterPARES Trust provided funding to Victoria University of Wellington to research how the digitised te reo Māori collection is used and the effects of that use on people and communities. The Alexander Turnbull Library supported the research.

The project is the first major piece of work in New Zealand to assess the effect of digital information from the viewpoint of the person using it. The first phase of the research has been completed, and a report has been released.8 The Library told us that the results are already influencing work on Māori Language Strategies.

We consider that the Library's engagement and reach with new audiences could be improved and that awareness of its collections could be strengthened. The Library could take a multifaceted approach to reaching new and existing users of its website to explore their needs and how the Library could meet them.

We are aware that there continues to be new techniques for analysing how people use websites and whether websites are effective in meeting their needs. The Library plans to consider which of these techniques would be most useful for its purposes.

There is an opportunity to learn more about how people use and reuse digital information and the benefits produced. This will allow public entities to tailor their digital services to people's needs and encourage greater use and reuse of digital information.

We encourage the Library to consider a wide range of methods for working more closely and collaboratively with people. For example, the Library could:

  • periodically test its websites to ensure that each website's design continues to meet people's needs and take a structured approach to asking people how they have used digital information (including metadata) with the aim of analysing themes and trends from the results and give ideas on how other people could use the collections;
  • launch a trusted online community supported by the Library staff for people with common interests to connect with each other;
  • allow people to add their own tags to digital documents, such as names, dates, or key words (these would need to be distinguished from the Library's own metadata to ensure that people know which information is the official metadata that meets international standards); and
  • share information with universities' postgraduate schools about potential research topics that students could study as part of their degree requirements, with the aim of increasing the research the Library could otherwise fund, supervise, or perform.

3: Other metadata could include, for example, a reference number, narrative description, who supplied the collection, how documents are arranged (such as in folders or chronologically), the amount of documents, a physical description, provenance, transfers (which means, for example, categorising posters into the Ephemera collection and cassette tapes into the Oral History collection), access restrictions, and copyright and licensing statements.

4: By "collective online presence", we meant all the ways in which the different parts of the Library are available online.

5: The policies are available on the Library's website.

6: Creative Commons is a non-government organisation that provides free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple and standardised way to give the public permission to share and use someone's creative work. Information about these licenses is available at

7: Examples of organisations are Archives New Zealand, public libraries, the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa, Te Rōpu Whakahau, the Ministry of Education and selected schools, Local Government New Zealand, the Association of Public Library Managers, and the galleries, archives, community organisations, and museums that share their metadata as partners in DigitalNZ (

8: Crookston, Mark, and others (2016), Kōrero Kitea: Ngā hua o te whakamamatitanga: The impacts of digitised te reo archival collections. The report is on the InterPARES Trust's website,, and it can also be accessed through the Library's website.