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Where do archivists come from?

By Diana Roberts

Hazel Simpkin is retiring from her voluntary position in the Auckland Methodist Archives after more than 20 years of recording and researching, setting up systems and stacking shelves.

Heather was nearing retirement from her teaching career when she was asked if she would like to work with the Archives team under the leadership of the late Rev George Carter. She responded positively, as she has always felt strongly about the value of history, especially the recording of the life and work of ‘ordinary people’.

She had already written her first history, the story of the Arapohue Methodist church in Northland. Towards the end of 1985 she joined the team, which included Verna Mossong, Bruce Verry, and Francis Williams, as well as Rev Carter. Not long after this, Jill Weeks began her Archives career. Others whom Hazel remembers are Nancy Carter, George and Vida McKay and Dave Roberts.

Archives work is varied. There are boxes of books and papers brought in by parishes: baptismal registers, minutes, correspondence, financial records, bulletins, photographs, membership rolls, plans, and accounts of social gatherings, church services, and jubilees.

When the new acquisitions have been entered in an accessions register, any staples need to be removed (rusty and sharp staples can cause considerable damage) and the papers must be sorted, labelled, listed and stored. Hazel must have processed thousands of items in this way, ensuring their preservation and accessibility.

Then there are the research queries. The Archives have a very fine collection of material relating to church missions in the Pacific, and scholars regularly work with these primary sources.

The letters and diaries tell remarkable stories. Hazel has a soft spot for the “poor missionaries’ wives” – women whose work and commitment, faith, loneliness, courage and hardships were never acknowledged. She’s also a champion of the “native workers”, whose contribution was not officially recognised. The missions collection is known outside New Zealand, and requests for information have come from Australia, the USA, and the UK.

The escalating interest in family history is responsible for many requests to help find a great grandfather who was a minister, a grandmother who sang in the choir, an ancestor who was a pupil at the church school. When a parish church centenary celebration is in the offing, the parish historian comes to Archives to look through the relevant records. The Archives have been consulted during the preparation of documentaries for TV and radio.

These days most requests arrive by email, a sign of the major changes introduced by information technology (IT). Hazel has thoroughly familiarised herself with information technology, and has produced many guides, lists and indexes on both the Archives computer and her own PC. For her, IT is one of the significant changes she has experienced in her years in Archives. Other changes are the appointment of a Methodist Connexional Archivist in Christchurch, and the introduction of charges for archival work.

The photographic collection has been one of Hazel’s responsibilities. The formal pictures and the snapshots offer glimpses of the lives so dear to Hazel: those ordinary people, quietly serving their church and living their faith, who never appear in history books, yet who made history - who are history.

As she retires from Archives, Hazel sends out a heartfelt request for others to come and carry on the work, to preserve the life stories of her ‘ordinary people’.

“History will be lost if there is no-one to keep it” she says. “And it’s much too precious to lose. How can we know ourselves if we don’t know our history?” she asks.

Some readers of this article may feel drawn to Archives work. If you have computer skills that would be great, but there are tasks which don’t require IT knowledge. The company is congenial, and a small travel allowance is available. We’re there on Tuesdays, 9am to 3pm, and we welcome any time you can give. The Church expresses its gratitude to Hazel. The sincerest appreciation would be to come and join the Archives team!