The photograph shows Bill Oliver as general editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, in about 1990.
In these excerpts from a 2012 oral history with Alison Parr, Oliver talks about how he conceived of the Dictionary project and how he put together the first volume, published in 1990. The text of the recording follows:
Looking at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and the venture that it was, you describe the work that you and others did in the DNZB as a radical programme, and a democratisation of the process of doing history. What was your intention in the way that you approached that work?
Well, we had in the background, a predecessor, we had a chopping block, Scholefield’s 1940 Dictionary of New Zealand [Biography], and there's no doubt in his mind as to what he was celebrating, it was New Zealand’s becoming British, and the glories of colonisation and British civilisation, and of course by 1990, which this book was to celebrate, that could go longer be held in its simplicity. Nineteen ninety was known as the sesquicentennial, a word I’d never heard before, nor have I come across anyone else who had heard of it before, and the beauty of the word was that it meant nothing but 150 years, and left open the question of what it was that was being celebrated as 150 years old. So anyone could take their own meaning out of it. We, or I as editor, and the rest of the people as members of staff, and the enormous body of volunteers we had, everybody had their own agenda, I think, and that meant it was like somebody once said of someone’s prose style, ‘it was an elastic sided boot’, it could get any size foot into it. It wasn’t that we could get any size foot into the DNZB as we envisaged it, but there was no prescription as to just what the dimensions or character of that foot should be, except that, I did enunciate, and it was generally accepted, but I was on my own in the first instance, I was appointed in August of 1983, and the first staff did not arrive – I had a secretary – but otherwise no staff until the beginning of 1984, Claudia Orange of course, Jamie Belich, who was really only for a year associate editor, Charlotte Macdonald, so in fact, the early thinking was done by me, and they made their contributions but I had set the framework. The framework was to be democratic in the sense that it would not embrace or enforce any ideology, but it would try to reflect, as accurately as possible, the character of New Zealand in the present and as well in the past, so that we would not ignore the fact that Māori were present in some numbers in the country. We would not ignore the fact that women were half of the population. We would not ignore the fact that there were places outside the four main centres, and so on and so on.
We decided that we would have a representative spread as far as we could without destroying the typical, basic historical character of biographical dictionaries. That is, we would go as far away from the principle of eminence as we could, in a direction that was geographical, from North Cape to the Bluff, and east to west, and in a way that was social as well, so that one way of getting into the dictionary was to say, ‘this person really represents a great deal, he is representative, let’s say, of sawmilling in Nelson, which is tremendously important’, indeed you could say this for a whole range of activities. And he would be surprised to be thought of as being in the company of prime ministers and bishops and so on.
There were a lot of people left out who could well have been put in, but we thought we had good reason for those we chose to have in. We had a phrase, and it kept coming up, ‘well, he’, or she, but particularly he, ‘he touches a lot of bases.’ It meant that this one would stand for a whole number of activities, and we wanted activities to be present in the full range of whatever people did, especially as this was the 19th century volume, I wasn’t worried about the 20th century, this was the 19th century, and I wanted the whole of the 19th century to be there, and I think we got fairly close. I don’t think there’s a significant activity which is not represented. Maybe they could have been represented better by other people, but the activity had to be there. We had shipmasters, we had ship builders, we had every Tom, Dick and Harry, and we may have gone overboard in that direction, it’s thoroughly possible.
But as you say, it was a different way of approaching national biography wasn’t it?
It was indeed, and I don’t think it has been attempted before, and I don’t know any example of people doing this sort of thing since. […]
For you what was the most satisfying aspect of working on the dictionary?
It was getting it done in something close to the shape that I envisaged it, and I say I, because I did envisage it originally. Seeing it come out, not an exact replica of my original vision, but recognisably the same, and close to it.
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Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage
Reference: W.H. Oliver oral history with Alison Parr, 2012
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Photograph: Private collection