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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 4, December 1959

Practical Uses of Historical Research

Practical Uses of Historical Research

page Five

"What use are these historical collections?" was a question he had been asked once again only that evening at the hotel dinner table, Mr C. R. H. Taylor, Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, told a Nelson audience. He was speaking at a Nelson Historical Society function on the Bett historical collection. He had had to think quickly, Mr Taylor said, but found no difficulty in giving the enquirer some illustrations of the practical value of historical research.

One good example was provided by the recent discussions as to whether an aeroplane had been flown in New Zealand, at Timaru, soon after the turn of the century. The enquiry had been handed over to the Turnbull Library, and from all sorts of old records it held, such as diaries, letters and newspapers, there might be produced valuable historical aviation information which would make New Zealand better known to the world.

Tangiwai Disaster

After the Tangiwai river railway disaster, the Railways Department had asked the Turnbull Library if it could provide a record of floods in the area over the previous 75 years. The library had, from old documents of all kinds, been able to provide data which enabled the Ministry of Works and the Railways Department to work out a pattern of previous floods and accidents.

One of the best-known students the Turnbull Library had had, Mr Taylor said, was the late Harrold Gatty, American flyer who wrote "Round the World in Eight Days." When he was attached to Pan-American Airway in Auckland after his pioneering world flights, Mr Gatty had frequently flown down to the Turnbull Library for the day to continue his studies.

Navigation Data

Mr Gatty's researches mainly concerned navigation, and as a result of his researches in the Turnbull Library he had produced a booklet which was distributed to all American airmen in the Pacific area during World War II. It showed them how to find their way anywhere in the Pacific by methods used by the early Polynesian voyagers.

Mr Gatty had, as a result of his studies in the Turnbull Library, obtained a description of an instrument used by 17th century navigators. He was able to modify this for use by modern aircraft, Mr Taylor said.

Mr Taylor said the library sometimes went back into its records in connection with Maori land claims about the origins of which pakehas were hazy, and had been able to provide valuable information.

"Anyone who says that historical research is not worth while is foolish," Mr Taylor said. "It is not just an academic pastime."