Story: Public history

Page 3. Government publications, 1980s–2000s

All images & media in this story

The 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s witnessed another flowering of government support for history publishing.

Historical Branch expands

After the appointment of new Chief Historian Jock Phillips in 1989, the Historical Branch (previously the Historical Publications Branch) of the Department of Internal Affairs began to expand. As well as war histories, staff and contractors wrote departmental histories on a cost-recovery basis. Historians also answered queries, gave advice to government, and administered grants for historical research and publication and oral history projects. From 2000, when it was transferred to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the branch was known as the History Group and members continued this work, as well as developing an innovative history website, (later known as NZHistory), launched in 1999.

Who were the historians?

The government history projects of the 1980s and beyond were edited by prominent scholars, but employed many junior historians, including both permanent staff and contract workers. Some – James Belich, Angela Ballara, Charlotte Macdonald, Rachel Barrowman and others – went on to forge independent academic reputations.

Dictionary of New Zealand biography

From the 1980s interdisciplinary teams produced some landmark reference works. A new Dictionary of New Zealand biography project began in 1983, headed first by W. H. Oliver and later Claudia Orange. The project was innovative: it used a computer database for selection, involved the public through regional working parties, and aimed for significant representation of Māori and women. Between 1990 and 2000 the project, employing nearly 20 contract editors, researchers, translators and other staff to prepare commissioned entries, produced five English volumes and five volumes in Māori, as well as subsidiary books. In 2001 the text, enhanced with portraits, was published as a website.

New Zealand historical atlas

The New Zealand historical atlas project began in 1990 under the editorship of Malcolm McKinnon, drawing on the expertise of archaeologists, architectural and urban historians, cartographers and Māori historians. The atlas, published in 1997, broke new ground in its spatial representation of history.

New dimensions

History on the web has a number of advantages: for instance it can be quickly searched and easily updated. One of the benefits is that, in the best traditions of public history, readers can respond to entries with their own stories. This adds richness to a brief account. For example, the Te Ara entry about country schooling includes fascinating personal accounts by people who went to country schools in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, developed this visual potential while exploiting the possibilities of the internet. It was the world’s first born-digital national encyclopedia.

It began in 2002 under the general editorship of Jock Phillips, and its staff expanded to include writers, resource researchers, editors, copyright experts and web designers. Publishing 10 ‘themes’ sequentially, its ‘first build’ was completed in 2014, and comprised close to 1,000 entries – about four million words in total – and 30,000 resources (photographs, artworks, sound files, film clips, maps, graphs, diagrams and interactives). Te Ara also incorporated and added to the 3,049 biographies originally published in the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, and published a digitised version of An encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966).

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public history - Government publications, 1980s–2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014