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Identifying and finding archives on your topic

Archival research is different to other kinds. If you haven’t done it before, it can be hard to know what types of record exist, and which will be relevant to your topic.

What’s different about archives

Many people are used using library catalogues or online journals to do research. In this kind of research, you often:

  • find information in secondary sources like books and articles

  • discover these sources by searching for keywords and phrases related to your topic, like “Māori land court” or “whenua”.

Archives are primary sources . Unlike books or articles, they aren’t created to shed light on a subject, but as documents to be used in people’s lives and work. This affects the way archives are named and organised – and means you need to search for them in different ways. Use these tips to get started.

1. Search for government agencies and types of record

Archives:

  • are not organised by topic, but by the government department or public institution that created them

  • don’t usually contain the names of people they relate to in their titles and other data – though there are some exceptions.

This means that searching for topic keywords or the name of a person you’re interested in won’t always find the most relevant archives.

Instead, search for:

  • the government departments or public agencies your subject might have interacted with

  • records these interactions could have created.

The table gives examples of the records you might use to find information about an ancestor.

2. Use books, articles and our research guides

Books and articles can show you which archives other researchers have used to learn about your topic. Look in their bibliographies and source lists.

Our research guides are another good place to start. They can help you learn which of our archives may contain information about:

  • an ancestor’s life

  • your whānau, hapū, iwi or whenua

  • a piece of land

  • events in your life, like immigration to Aotearoa New Zealand, a stay in state care, or a divorce

  • other topics.

See all our research guides

3. Use the language of your sources to search

Our records still have the same titles they did when they were created. This means:

  • some records use dated language, like “lunatic asylum” instead of “psychiatric hospital”

  • Māori names are often spelled incorrectly, and very few records use macrons

  • some spellings have changed over time

  • a person’s name might be entered using initials or an alias.

You’ll get better results if you bear these differences in mind when you search for records. Use the words your sources use and try different spellings.

For example:

  • Wanganui/Whanganui

  • Ngai Tahu/Kai Tahu/Ngaitahu/Kaitahu

  • pa/pah

  • hauhau/hauhaus /hau haus/hau hau

  • Maori/Maaori/native/natives.

Visit Collections search to get started

Find records in Collections search

Ordering and viewing records

Some of our records have been digitised, so you can view them online. If you need to see a record that isn’t online, you can either:

  • pay for it to be digitised

  • view it in the reading room at the archive it’s kept in.

Find out how to pay to get an item digitised

Learn how to order items and book a visit to a reading room

Reading and understanding archives

Many archives are written by hand and use shorthand and abbreviations. This can make them difficult to read. If you’re finding it hard to read a record, try:    

  • taking a photo you can enlarge or zoom in on

  • asking an archivist for help

  • using an online resource that explains how to read historic handwriting.

Ask an archivist for help reading a record

Copyright and citation

Most of the material in our holdings is protected by Crown Copyright. If you want to publish or publicly exhibit work that includes copies of our archives, you usually need to get our permission first.

You also need to make sure you cite any archives you use.

Learn how to cite archives and get permission to publish your work

Online resources

These websites and organisations may help with your research.

New Zealand history, arts and texts

Digital NZ

Discover over 30 million digitised items from Aotearoa New Zealand – including videos, newspapers, maps, photos and artworks.

Explore Digital NZ’s collections

NZ on screen

Watch hundreds of New Zealand films, and see interviews with directors, actors and comedians.

Explore Aotearoa’s film history at NZ on screen

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Aotearoa New Zealand’s audiovisual archive has hundreds of thousands of films and recordings available to watch or listen to online.

Access New Zealand film, radio and music at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Papers Past

Digitised versions of New Zealand and Pacific newspapers, magazines and books from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Browse Papers Past at the National Library

New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

See digitised versions of Victoria University of Wellington Library's collections of New Zealand and Pacific Island texts and materials.

Find digitised materials at New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

New Zealand Audio Foundation

Browse this charity website for exhibitions, interviews and oral histories related to music and sound art in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Visit New Zealand Audio Foundation

28th Māori Battalion

Information about soldiers who served in the 28th Māori Battalion in the Second World War.

The site has a searchable list of records of over 6300 Māori and Pacific Island soldiers who served in the First and Second World Wars.

Search for Māori and Pacific soldiers at 28th Māori Batallion

Māori Land Court Minute Books Index

A searchable index of names, iwi, hapū and land blocks included in the Māori Land Court Minute Books from 1865 - 1910.

Search the Minute Books Index – Auckland University

The Prow

A collaborative project between libraries, museums and research institutions at the top of the South Island to collect stories and information about the region.

Find stories from the South Island – theprow.org.nz

National Oral History Association of New Zealand

Resources and guidance if you’re working on an oral history project, plus events and opportunities for online training.

Get more information about oral history

New Zealand History

Articles about people, places and events in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Learn about New Zealand history – nzhistory.govt.nz

Family history

FamilySearch

A global site where you can search for genealogy information and archives – with links to digitised items in our holdings.

Visit familysearch.org

Birth, Death and Marriage Historical Records

Search and order records of births, deaths and marriages in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Find birth, death and marriage records

Background information and academic works

Encyclopedia Britannica

This online encyclopedia has fact-checked articles on thousands of topics. It’s a good place to begin if you’re researching something new.

Read encyclopedia articles – britannica.com

NZ Research

Find and read articles, theses and reports from New Zealand universities and other research organisations.

Search for articles at NZ Research

Internet Archive

Access millions of free books, papers, movies and more.

Look for resources in the Internet Archive

WorldCat

Find books, articles and other research resources in libraries all over the world.

Explore the world’s libraries at WorldCat

Any questions

If you’re a student, you can ask a librarian a question about your research.

Talk to a librarian at Any Questions

Other archives, libraries and museums

Directory of community archives

Locations, websites and contact information of all organisations across New Zealand that hold archival information.

Search for community archives

National Library of New Zealand

Access millions of books, electronic resources and other taonga at Aotearoa New Zealand’s national library.

Start your research at the National Library

National Library of Australia

Search for library items and access stories, blogs and research tips.

Find resources in the National Library of Australia

The Maritime Museum

Find online resources and exhibition details and learn about the history of seagoing in Aotearoa New Zealand. Use the Maritime Index to search for information about vessels, organisations, subjects and people.

Learn more at the Maritime Museum

New Zealand government websites

Births, Deaths & Marriages Online

Search and order government records for births, deaths and marriages in Aotearoa New Zealand – Archives New Zealand doesn’t keep these records.

Find birth, death and marriage information at the Department of Internal Affairs

Other New Zealand government websites

Sometimes you’ll need to get permission from another government agency to view a restricted record.

See a list of New Zealand government websites

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