Story: Te Ara – a history

Page 10. Biographies

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More than 3,000 biographies, most of them originally published in the five print volumes of the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB), are among Te Ara’s most popular sections.

Beginnings, 1983–90

The DNZB project began in 1983. General editor W. H. Oliver rejected the traditional approach of biographical dictionaries, which celebrated white male leaders. He wanted to include people prominent in a regional, tribal, ethnic or occupational context, and set challenging targets for entries on women and Māori. Enthusiastic volunteers joined regional and specialist working parties which suggested names. Details were entered into an innovative (for the time) database, which grew to nearly 12,500 biographical records, and could be interrogated when selecting the 600-odd subjects for each volume.

Numerous authors wrote essays which were checked, supplemented and edited by a growing staff. Volume one, including people who were active by 1869, appeared in 1990, New Zealand’s sesquicentennial year. Critically acclaimed, it won the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book of the Year award in 1991.


On Oliver’s retirement in 1990, Claudia Orange took over as general editor, and a further four volumes, including people who flourished between 1870 and 1960, were published by 2000. In addition, five volumes of the almost 500 entries on Māori individuals, translated into Māori, were published, as were a number of topical volumes, including The suffragists (1993) and Te Kīngitanga (1996).

Beware of what you wish for

The story is told that Prime Minister Rob Muldoon supported a 1982 cabinet decision to establish the Dictionary of New Zealand biography project because he hoped to be immortalised in an entry. He was less enthusiastic when told that you had to be dead to qualify for inclusion. His wish was eventually granted in 2010, when he became the subject of one of 10 new biographies.

From 2000 a small residual staff created the DNZB website, with funding from the New Zealand Historical Association. The site,, included all biographies published in English and Māori, supplemented by a new feature of historical topics, ‘Our land, our people’. The Alexander Turnbull Library co-operated in a major image search to find portraits for as many entries as possible. A ‘Contribute an image’ feature encouraged site visitors to help. The website was formally launched in 2002 (after a soft launch in December 2001).


Once the Te Ara website began, entries were linked to relevant biographies on the DNZB website. However, it became clear that there would be advantages if biographies were incorporated in Te Ara – in particular, it would be possible for users to search across both Te Ara and DNZB content.

At the same time it was decided to commission more biographies of a handful of prominent New Zealanders. Ten new biographies were published in December 2010, when the DNZB was integrated into Te Ara. A further five appeared in 2011. Funding constraints curtailed this work.

Of Biblical proportions

The Māori-language volumes of the Dictionary of New Zealand biography were hailed as the most substantial work to appear in te reo Māori since the Māori version of the Bible was published in the 19th century.

2013 redesign

Issues relating to lack of structural consistency between Te Ara and DNZB entries led to a redesign of the biographies section in 2013. Changes were made to the search functions and layout of entries, and the home page was redesigned to be more visually appealing, with a regularly changing slide show and themed portrait gallery.

The DNZB has a loyal following and continues to generate interest, with people requesting records from the biographical database, offering images and suggesting corrections. There remains considerable scope to further develop this national taonga.

How to cite this page:

the Te Ara team, 'Te Ara – a history - Biographies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2017)