How to do research
Using archives for research can be an interesting and exciting experience, but it can also be challenging. Here is some guidance about how to get started, information for students, as well as useful tips and frequently asked questions to help you to get the most out of your research.
We hold records created by New Zealand government agencies, such as the Ministry of Justice or the Department of Internal Affairs.
Our holdings are organised by which government agency created the records, rather than what the records are about. It can be helpful to keep this in mind when starting your research. Using an archive can be quite different to using a library. In a library you might search by author or subject, but in an archive, you need to consider who made the record.
Think about which government agency might have created the record you’re looking for. How might the subject have interacted with the government in the creation of a record? For example, if someone died accidentally a coroner’s inquest report may have been created.
Consider what you are searching for and try to be specific about what information you are trying to find. If you’re not sure, try looking at secondary sources such as published books or articles about your topic. Look at their sources lists or bibliographies to find what archives other researchers on this topic have consulted. We have research guides that cover the most requested records within our holdings by topic.
Keep in mind that records may have been created for quite different purposes to how we might use them in research today. For example, the Chinese poll tax books were created to document Chinese immigrants to New Zealand. Today these are often used as valuable sources of family history. Be open minded about what records might contain the information you’re searching for and try to search broadly.
Try using different words or spellings in your searches. Archway lists the titles of records, not the content of the records, and this can include spelling mistakes if it is on the original record. Think about what kind of language was being used at the time when the record was created. Language use changes over time. For example, in the 1800s the term ‘lunatic’ was often used to describe people suffering from mental illness. Now we use the term mental health.
Many archives are handwritten documents and not always easy to read. Shorthand and abbreviations are sometimes used, so it can take time to work out what is written. It is helpful to enlarge the script either taking a photograph or making a copy. Our archivists may also be able to help, and there are resources available online for reading historic handwriting.
Keeping track of your research
Research can take a long time to complete and you may end up using many different records in the process. It's good practice to keep your own clear records of what you have viewed and the information you have found.
Make careful and consistent notes about what records you’ve looked at, so that you don’t forget or need to repeat your work later. Write down the full archive reference numbers and titles of the items you view and keep this somewhere handy.
You can also take photographs of the records you use. This means that you can refer to them later and correct any mistakes made while writing down information.
Good recordkeeping also means that you can cite your research properly and support your findings with solid evidence. Check out our guide to citing archival records for more information on citing archival records.
Making the most of your time in the reading rooms
Make sure your laptop, camera or other devices are charged. There are some power outlets available, but we don’t provide charging cables. Make sure you have enough memory on your devices. We don’t provide USB sticks or memory cards.
Prioritise your requests. You can only order up to five items at a time, and that it takes time to retrieve items to the reading room. Plan which records are most important for you to see during your visit in case you don’t have time to see them all.
Give yourself plenty of time for your research. Archive records come in all sorts of shapes and sizes - some can be several hundred pages long. You want to have enough time to read through the records you have ordered.
The reading rooms are for self directed and private research. This means that you are responsible for doing your own research. Our staff can help you to use Archway and answer questions relating to finding records.
We are unable to carry out extended research on your behalf. We recommend using one of the following groups if you want to hire a private researcher:
New Zealand Society of Genealogists or check out advertisements in their magazine.
Take breaks. While you cannot eat or drink in the reading rooms, there are break out spaces available. Wellington also has a public café onsite.
Helpful tips for students
Archives can be a useful place to find examples of primary historical sources. Primary sources are original records created in the moment of an event or first hand accounts of the event. Secondary sources are created after the event and can offer interpretations of what happened. The National Library has a guide to the different types of primary and secondary sources available on their website.
Do some research about your topic to get an idea of what records connected to your topic. Have a look online - do a library search for any published works and do some general reading around your subject. Reference lists and bibliographies in published books and articles are a good starting point. These will show you what sources the authors consulted during their research and can be helpful for your own research.
Be specific about what archives you want to find - it can be hard to search for broad general topics in archive collections. If you’re not sure about what you’re trying to find check some secondary sources first. A teacher or lecturer can help you to narrow down your research area.
Primary sources can be viewed online if they have been digitised. Try searching our Flickr page for photographs, or Archway for digital copies of records. Find out what we have available to view online here.
Remember to always keep a list of the archives you have consulted in your research. This is important for your bibliographies or reference lists and is evidence of the work you have done. See our citations and reuse guide for further information.
Below is a list of links to websites that may help with research undertaken with us or the National Library. If you have a site that you believe is relevant and isn’t mentioned, please contact us.
Archives New Zealand
Other library sites
Helpful research sites
New Zealand Government sites
Last updated on 13 July 2021