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Dan Brown was right, finding old shit is interesting and good

After attending the National Digital Forum in Wellington, Madeleine Chapman returned to her work desk with the key to a whole new world of knowledge. 

Last month, the National Digital Forum (NDF) was held across two days at Te Papa museum in Wellington. A gathering of GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) personnel to share ideas on how to present their data to the public in ways that will promote and increase engagement. I attended as a journalist and realised very quickly that I had no idea what anyone was talking about.

Richard Foy from the Department of Internal Affairs opened the event by highlighting the importance of digitising historical documents to make them easier for future generations to consume and learn from. Because it’s only through discovering the mistakes of our past that we can begin to improve in the future. As someone who never took history as a subject in school and has very few possessions, it took me a few moments to appreciate the need to keep a record of everything that happens in New Zealand. Sounds like hoarding, I thought, because I’m pretty dumb sometimes.

It’s so much more than simply storing all the information and keeping it safe. It’s about finding ways to educate the public on events and issues that are relevant to the society we live in.

The conference was attended largely by employees in the GLAM sector and I had fun playing Where’s Wally at the opening ceremony with Wally being a fellow Pacific Islander. I didn’t spot any that morning but at lunch, someone called my name and I turned to see a Samoan woman smiling at me. Once we got talking it became clear that we actually knew each other through our sisters being friends and playing on the same basketball team. For some reason I wasn’t at all surprised. But while the GLAM sector may be majority Pākehā, there was a clear understanding of the importance of preserving the cultural history of New Zealand. We even sung Te Aroha during the opening ceremony which should’ve been a non-event but was actually one of my favourite parts of the whole conference.

Just a cool photo of the Apollo 11 astronauts on their way to their space shuttle that I doung on archive.org.

Just a cool photo of the Apollo 11 astronauts on their way to their space shuttle that I found on archive.org.

Takerei Norton of the Ngāi Tahu Cultural Mapping Project spoke about the ongoing mission to map the South Island with the correct original Māori place names. It’s something I had never thought of before but it immediately made perfect sense. Of course that should be done and of course it should be made as easy as possible. He urged government officials and keepers of historical maps and notes to make such documents more accessible to iwi so that they may reconnect the cultural history of New Zealand with modern society.

The trouble is, once you leave school or university, no one wants to feel like they’re being lectured or taught. So how do these institutions present such important information in ways that make us want to learn?

1) They can make it pretty.

Michael Lascarides of Papers Past, a website where you can find – wait for it – newspapers from the past, spoke about the decision to improve their user experience. Because nothing turns me on like a mobile-friendly website. I joke about it but seriously, if I have to scroll sideways on my phone, I’m leaving the page #millennial

I never properly considered the notion that people had meetings in 1853 (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22434044)

I never properly considered the notion that there were committee rooms in 1853 (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand)

2) They can make it free.

In a world where everything is online and ideas are stolen every second, it’s hard to keep track of where things originated and how they came about. Any photo taken of you, your mum, your kid, or Kermit the frog, could easily become a meme and be shared thousands of times across the web. The very idea of copyright or exclusivity is nearing redundant. Websites like Getty Images apply watermarks to prevent publishers from using their photos without paying, but that doesn’t stop the layman from using them anyway, just ask Brian Tamaki.

Fun fact that Tamaki clearly didn't know: the woman standing actually came 4th in that race

Fun fact that Tamaki clearly didn’t know: the woman standing actually came 4th in that race

So what do the caretakers of cultural and historical documents do to prevent copyright infringement? They make everything easily accessible and completely free. New Zealand’s galleries, libraries, archives, and museums all have thousands upon thousands of historical images, videos, and documents for free public use, but hardly anyone knows about them. I even found some old feature films on archive.org the other day which you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

These treasure troves of free content seemed like a well-kept secret that everyone in the sector was trying desperately to spill. I can’t remember a single time I have turned to the National Library or online archives for images when compiling stories. And that was essentially the whole point of the conference. And now that I know of all these websites, I hereby will only answer to Robert Langdon, finder of secrets in old, forgotten scrolls.

It took me half a day to figure out what the conference was actually about, and once I solved that mystery, it took me another half day to visit all the GLAM sites (most for the first time) and see what they had to offer. It’s endless and impossible to absorb everything. So, for now, I’ll be revisiting old, bad video games thanks to the online arcade at archives.org.

Next time you’re lying on your bed, not in bed, just on it, in the way you do after a long day when you’re exhausted but also quite gross, and you’re about to go scroll through social media to find some mildly interesting news articles, stop. Instead, try visiting digitalnz.org, paperspast, or archives.org. You’d be surprised what you might learn.

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