Story: Te Ara – a history

Caren Wilton, production editor, 2014

Caren Wilton, production editor, 2014

Te Ara production editor Caren Wilton triumphantly marks a key stage in the development of the long-running project. She holds the sign-off sheet for 'Cartooning', the first entry to be published in the last of Te Ara's nine themes, Creative and Intellectual Life.

What\'s you story?

Contributed by Caren Wilton

I had a big crush on Te Ara from its early days, but the only jobs I ever saw advertised on it typically required a doctorate in zoology or botany. Gulp. So I was delighted when in late 2006 an ad appeared for an editor. I could do that, I thought. I’d been working freelance for a few years and was badly out of the habit of job interviews, so I was daunted enough at facing a panel of three people, never mind the following opening exchange:

Jock Phillips: Sorry to get you in at such short notice.

Me: That’s fine.

Jock: Well, you weren’t on the shortlist, but someone else dropped out at the last minute.

Me: Oh.

Then I was given an editing test to do and not enough time in which to do it. My time up, my half-complete edit handed in, I left the building and stamped down the Terrace, furious that I’d wasted two hours of my life in such a completely pointless fashion. Then my mobile rang, and it was production manager Ross Somerville, asking if he could contact my referees.

And that is how my career at Te Ara began. An unsettled jack-of-all-trades type who had never spent longer than 18 months in a job, I stayed, and stayed, and stayed. I learnt all kinds of things, about New Zealand history, about plants and animals and places and unions and wars and women’s suffrage and Māori tradition and culture, as well as things I had never wanted to know about. Sport. Economic theory. Animal diseases. Farm fencing. Sometimes it felt as if it went in one ear and out the other, there was so much of it, but a fine residue remained.

On-tap botanists, zoologists, experts in Māori culture, historians of all stripes, people who knew everything, it seemed. I was in heaven, and perhaps sometimes a little intimidated. The Dominion Post quiz at morning tea, done by a bunch of encyclopedists? There was no way I could keep up.

We called it the sausage factory, the constant stream of entries to be processed, but if they were sausages, they were a fine and spicy range, sausages of many flavours. I wasn’t employed as a writer, and I’m no historian, but I got to write the ‘Communes and communities’ entry, and was particularly pleased with its front-page hero image, which features male and female nudity and a horse (thanks Mel Lovell-Smith for finding this fine shot of commune life in the ’70s).

Oh, life at Te Ara. I have terrific memories of Jock announcing weekly team meetings with a piercing whistle, and stripping off at his desk each morning after riding his bike to work. When he turned 60 – a while ago now – we built a bogus entry, ‘Jock’s exploration of New Zealand’, a hacked version of ‘European exploration of New Zealand’, with Jock’s face badly Photoshopped onto all the pics, and great jokes. We exaggerated the whistling, adding ‘an endearing habit of giving each team member a farm-dog nickname’, and an invented fulsome quote from ‘one of the editors, known only as Trick’.

It’s been a great ride. And I still love Te Ara.



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Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

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the Te Ara team, 'Te Ara – a history - Writing and editing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2022)

Story by the Te Ara team