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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa


This section deals with printing and production in New Zealand between 1830 and the present day. After a brief general introduction, the subject is treated under four main divisions:

  • Technology: the technology of printing, considered in terms of technical processes, equipment and materials
  • Trade: the people whose skills created printed products of all kinds for the use of New Zealand society
  • Economics and government regulation: the economics of printing and the impact of legislation and other government intervention
  • Private printing: non-commercial and hobby printing

Under these broad headings will be found a number of particular topics as the subject requires.

Some overlap with the section on publishing is inevitable, since some firms have carried out both printing (in all departments, including binding) and publishing, and often other functions as well, such as bookselling and stationery trading. Histories of newspapers and periodicals are to some extent also relevant to this section, because they include the histories of their production processes; moreover, the firms which have produced them have in most cases been involved concurrently in general and jobbing printing.

The printing industry has always been subject to changes in technology and in ownership, yet up to a couple of decades ago the structural organisation of the print materials production industry remained relatively stable. However, from the 1970s onward the pace of change has hugely accelerated. Computerisation and the introduction of new categories of copying machines have not only brought major changes in the ways print materials can be produced, they have also made possible radical organisational changes. In the 1990s, while there are still some printing firms, especially in provincial towns, that continue to operate in terms of long-established modes of organisation, much of the kinds of work traditionally carried out by the printing industry is dispersed to typing/word processing businesses, copy centres using sophisticated photocopiers and laser print copiers, and stationery supply stores, operating as chains or buying associations. Moreover, for relatively small runs, many organisations that previously provided business for printers can now carry out 'desktop' print production in-house, using their own computers, scanners, high quality printers, and copiers. Any individual with access to such resources, and sufficient funds, can embark upon self-publishing. Some material is published electronically only, to be downloaded by individual users.

Accordingly, the historiography of print materials production can be envisaged as, for the period up to the 1970s, largely a matter of identifying and describing relatively slow-changing technologies, and patterns of organisation of the printing and related trades, according particular attention to their initial establishment. While it has to recognise a period of substantial change within the period 1890 to 1914, with the introduction of hot-metal typesetting, photo-engraving, rotary presses for newspapers, offset presses, and electric power, together with major growth in worker and employer organisations, it should also stress the continuities throughout this period, and the decades of relative stability thereafter. Since about 1970, however, it has to accommodate accelerated technological change and structural diversification, and to acknowledge that these processes will doubtless continue to proliferate. It needs also to comprehend the recent consolidation of ownership of larger scale enterprises, and the opening up of the country, since the mid 1980s, to takeovers by overseas-based corporations.

The New Zealand printing industry has always had to accommodate the pressures of competition from larger scale overseas enterprises. Before about 1938, the trade for books, specifically, within this country was heavily dominated by British publishers, so that relatively few were printed locally, and those mainly in niche areas (school books and readers, cookery, gardening, local histories, directories, official publications, and so forth). Helen M. Oliver in Printing and Publishing in New Zealand (1976) notes that, for the period prior to 1967, many New Zealand published books were printed in Australia because of the favourable exchange rate, and some were printed much further afield. In the last couple of decades, computerised technology, and the increasing globalisation, in diverse ways, of production, markets, and ownership of capital resources, have generated new kinds of pressures and complexities affecting the printing industry. Even when the composition process is carried out in New Zealand, presswork and binding may take place in Malaysia, Singapore or Hong Kong. In this kind of situation, the local work is generally done by trade typesetters rather than by printing firms.

Shifts in the economics of print material production are thus of major importance, and involve not only factors within New Zealand but also exchange rates, relative wage and paper costs, the level of sophistication of offshore production facilities, international or bilateral trade agreements, and the policies of other governments.

Historically, since 1900, the printing industry has been strongly affected by four major upheavals: the ongoing impact of the industrial relations and working conditions legislation of the earlier years of the 1890-1911 Liberal Government, principally the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894; World War I, with its shortages and challenges; the Depression of 1929-35; and World War II.