Canterbury earthquake anniversary series: Chris Adam, Archives NZ

By Chris Adam, Regional Archivist at Archives New Zealand Christchurch Office.

One year after the February earthquake, and 17 months into the series of shakes that began on 4 September 2010, the Christchurch Office of Archives New Zealand is still unable to offer its normal levels of service. Coupled with this the fate of the Peterborough Street building as an archive repository remains in doubt.

In spite of this, like many institutions (and people) in the city, we are looking past the current uncertainties to plan for the future.

In some ways the job seemed much simpler and the future more certain a year ago in the immediate aftermath of the February quake. Then our focus was simply on gaining access to the building and securing the archives, and merely getting in to work was a victory in itself. This absorbed all of our energy for some months.

Downstairs stack, Archives NZ Christchurch Office, February 2011.The archive was initially deep within the cordoned city Red Zone and access was difficult – but we managed to secure the building, begin salvage work by the middle of March and reoccupy the building permanently in April. The cordon eventually withdrew behind the building in June and we were able to open to the public in early July. The months we spent working within the cordoned zone had a surreal quality. Ours was one of the few occupied buildings in the area, and the subsequent months spent on the very edge of the CBD red zone surrounded by unoccupied and demolished buildings and the sound of further demolition have had the flavour of life in a war zone.

Whereas the earthquake of September 2010 had barely affected services, the February shake damaged most mobile shelving units, rendering much of our archival holdings inaccessible. The force of the quake struck across the axis of the mobile shelving units, snapping off bolts and moving the rails sideways, pushing associated static units up to a metre out of alignment. Blocks of map cabinets that had not moved a millimetre during the September event were catapulted across aisles. Subsequent major aftershocks have only exacerbated the damage.

Downstairs stack, Archives NZ Christchurch Office, March 2011.To date, four and a half blocks of mobile units (out of a total of nine) have been deconstructed to free-up access to the material contained in them and to adjacent units. The contents from these units have been palletised and stored on site or in commercial storage. Some of the blocks freed-up briefly by this process were made inaccessible again by the December shakes. Eventually all the mobile units will need to be dismantled.

If damage had just been confined to the shelving the office would have been fully operational again by last December, but damage to the building itself has prevented this. Although only a small amount of liquefaction has been discovered, the floor itself was badly damaged and there is hardly a level floor surface in the repository. This is particularly true on the southwest side of the building, where the wall has dropped and dragged the floor down with it, leaving shelving hanging in the air.

Observing and experiencing the unfolding consequences of the quakes has been like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It is only now that the full consequences of a few minutes of extreme violence are becoming apparent. Seconds of frenetic activity have been translated into months, possibly years of recovery work.

Regional Archivist's office, 22 February 2011.The building has been repeatedly checked since the February event and considered safe for occupation, but its long-term future as an archive repository is uncertain because of the damage it has sustained and the work required to fix this. At the time of writing, teams of engineers have put forward their proposals to repair the damage and discussions are under way between loss adjusters and property managers in the Department of Internal Affairs. It seems almost certain that we will have to evacuate the building at some point, and the results of these discussions will determine whether this is a temporary or permanent move.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, as the saying goes… The office was in a position to open to the public once the cordon withdrew to behind the building in June. Fortunately the bulk of the most used archives were accessible and the remote reference service was already back to its usual levels by April. When the public reading room opened in early July, however, service was limited to mornings only and at the time of writing a return to a full service needs to await the protracted demolition of the adjacent convention centre as well as having some certainty about the fate of our own building.

Archives staff dismantling shelving, March 2011.One of the many frustrating things about the immediate aftermath of February was our inability to do anything except look after our own building and its contents. We were not in a position to offer anything but the briefest advice to other documentary heritage institutions or the many government offices badly affected by the quake, and certainly not in a position to emulate the heroic efforts made by the Air Force Museum and others.  This ‘pastoral care’ work was immediately picked-up by the Government Recordkeeping and Community Archives sections in Archives’ National Office, freeing us up to concentrate on our own pressing needs.

By July we were finally able, at least occasionally, to lift our gaze out to our wider community and our archiving commitments.

In September 2011 a project to digitise the many thousands of genealogically important probate files held in the Christchurch Office was launched by Mayor Bob Parker. This project was a direct response to the earthquake and is a result of the continued collaboration between Archives New Zealand and Family Search; both institutions recognise that digitisation of the region’s documentary heritage is a valid recovery strategy and a sensible way of using the resources available in the office while other constraints limit our ability to provide a full research service.

While damage to the current building and its contents dominates our working lives, for some months we have been in the exciting process of planning a new repository and are in discussions with local institutions and central government agencies to establish a documentary heritage hub in Christchurch at some point in the not too distant future.. Whatever havoc the earthquakes have wrought on our accommodation plans in the short or medium term, this may be compensated for in the future by an archives facility capable of serving the region for the next 30 years and beyond.

Photo credits:

1. Downstairs stacks, Archives NZ Christchurch Office, March 2011.  Photo courtesy of Archives NZ.

2. Downstairs stacks, Archives NZ Christchurch Office, March 2011.  Photo courtesy of Archives NZ.

3. Regional Archivist’s office,  Archives NZ Christchurch Office, February 2011.  Photo courtesy of Archives NZ.

4. Archives staff dismantling shelving, Archives NZ Christchurch Office, March 2011.  Photo courtesy of Archives NZ.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing! It’s so good for those of us working in heritage to see the effects of the quakes and have robust conversations on the storage of our precious items.
    I can understand how frustrating it all must have been [and still will be] but it looks like you’ve all done a stirling job in trying to get some ‘normalcy’ back in to your working life.
    Wishing you and all your staff all the best
    Sarndra of Auckland
    [hometown – Christchurch]

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