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In this blog, Denise Williams, Director Transformation at Archives NZ, writes about how Archives is moving their services online.

Setting the scene

Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga is the official guardian of the record of New Zealand’s government. We gather, store and protect a wide range of material including the Treaty of Waitangi Te Tiriti o Waitangi, government documents, maps, paintings, photographs and film.

If you’ve seen our He Tohu exhibit or looked through the NZDF WW1 personnel records for your genealogical research then you’ve a got a good idea of what we do. For the public sector, if you’re a recordkeeper or an information manager then chances are that you’ve talked to Archives about standards, asked for advice on compliance or consulted our experts in preservation and conservation.

The Archives 2057 Strategy sets a direction for where we want to go. The essence of this strategy can be summed up in 3 statements:

  • Taking archives to the people is about getting government information “out there” for users, promoting what we do and gearing up for the growth in digital and physical holdings.
  • Upholding transparency is about supporting open government principles, so many of which are enabled by good information management practices.
  • Building systems together is about shaping an effective government information system.

What’s the problem?

To support the Strategy, Archives’ online presence had to first overcome some challenges.

We completed customer insights research and a formal engagement exercise with the government information sector. Digital evolution in our society has created higher expectations for speed and accessibility of services and information.

Our customer research showed that they did not understand why they always need to come to a physical location to view records. Government clients wanted easy to find and understand support to enable compliance with the Public Records Act.

What’s needed

To meet these expectations Archives needs to transform its business to be digital. Our overarching desire is to create an environment where our customers and regulated partners can do as much as they can for themselves without having to interact directly with us. This is about changing the way our audiences use our products and services. To do this we needed to update our online presence.

What works and what doesn’t

We had a lot of anecdotal evidence about what works and more importantly, what doesn’t on our websites.

  • Information about what Archives holds, how to find things and getting help with research is scattered over 6 websites.
  • These websites were built on a jumble of platforms — Drupal 6 and 7 and a shared instance of the Common Web Platform with content in a mixture of styles, some of which had not been updated since the late 2000s.
  • Our websites were not customer-centric in their design and we didn’t segment our audiences well, we just wrote everything we knew on a topic and put it all on 1 page. For the casual user this is daunting at best. For information managers it meant they couldn’t find what they needed easily. Some content was findable only by accident. There was no consistent information architecture even within a single site.
  • These sites were built a decade ago with good intentions and ideas, but as happens often they were never really seen as part of our core work. Websites were started as a nice-to-have so mostly they were set up and managed by people on top of their day jobs. But in 2019, a strong online presence is a necessity.

At Archives we knew that:

  • no one has admin and edit permissions across all 6 websites
  • for a few sites, the content was hard-coded so editing them required a change request to our IT support group. As you can imagine, these sorts of requests are not a high priority
  • we had no style guide that defined Archives’ look and feel, voice or tone, who our audiences are, or what information each audience was looking for, and
  • there was no shared approach for our websites, no publication schedule, no pipeline or content strategy.

Sticking with what we had wasn’t an option

The older platforms are a security risk, the sites aren’t helping our reputation and they don’t provide a good user experience. People — public sector information managers, genealogists, researchers, students — need an information architecture that reflects their needs. And unless you’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to navigate these sites, finding what you’re looking for can feel impossible.

We want to share what we know. We’re keen to show off the amazing material we hold for New Zealanders and tell them about the work we do to preserve, share, educate and connect people with our history. And logically an updated online presence would help us to achieve this goal.

What we did

Taking archives to the people is a lofty goal. In this time of rapid technological, social and environmental change, we know Archives needs to up our game. But that rapid change also gives us opportunities — to change how we manage information as well as making more available than we ever have before. For a lot of what we hold you must travel to one of our Archives sites in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin or Wellington to be able to view the record. The more we can put online for people to discover, the less constrained they’ll be in finding what they need.

But we didn’t want to just build another website, we wanted to understand what people needed from us, not find another way to push info at them.

So [taking a deep cleansing breath] we’ve built a new website. Such a short sentence to encompass so much work. Since last October, we’ve rebuilt the Archives NZ website, which will still be at

The discovery phase

Before that work started, we went through a discovery stage: we did a content audit and commissioned customer insights research so that we had an objective view of what people needed from Archives’ online channel.

To give you an idea of what we found, here are a few numbers from the main Archives website and the Records Toolkit website.

We culled 74% of our content, going from 661 pages on and the Records toolkit to 175 pages on our new website. Talk about a deep clean.

Our foundation principles for the new website

We started with a few foundation principles for the new website.

  • It had to support te ao Māori — the Māori world view — to reflect our relationship as partners with the Crown under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
  • Responsive design — except for some specialised content for public sector information managers, the website will work on any device, so you can find what you want on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer.
  • We aimed to meet NZ Web Standards for accessibility and usability so everyone can use it because we know that accessibility is not something that can be added on top.
  • Making evidence-based decisions — because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of just freshening the visual design elements, or making assumptions based on our own work priorities, Archives commissioned researchers who talked to people about what they wanted from us. That plus Google Analytics metrics gave us a good idea about how to prioritise content.
  • We had to rethink, rewrite and reorganise all the content. The websites we’re replacing were inconsistent when it came to audiences, writing style (narrative, blog posts, academic and gov-speak) and information architecture.

Archive’s new website

The new site will be launched on 10 June 2019 to line up as part of the International Archives Day as set by the International Council on Archives. The actual date is 9 June, but since New Zealand is first across the dateline, it’ll still work.

At launch, the current will be replaced and we’ll decommission the Records Toolkit. The other websites’ content will be migrated over as we finish rewriting it, so the rest of the sites will be closed gradually. There’s a list of all the Archives’ websites at the end of this blog post if you’re curious.

More about this work coming

Over the next few months, we’ll publish other blog posts on this work in greater detail.

We want to tell you more about:

  • The customer insights work and user testing.
  • Content strategy, audit and managing the publication pipeline.
  • Changing our style – tone, style and how we talk to our audiences using plain language (based on work done by, and
  • Replatforming and our new content management system.
  • Our agile process, engaging with Archives staff and being transparent.

Archives websites

  • Archives
  • Records Toolkit — guidance for public sector information managers
  • War Art — artwork involving New Zealanders from WW1 onward
  • Audio-visual Archives — clips and information from and about the National Film Unit, which was a state-owned film-production organisation
  • Audit Self-Assessment tool — a one-off site for public sector agencies to measure their compliance with the Public Records Act 2005.

Utility links and page information

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