Story: Te Ara – a history

Page 2. Planning the encyclopedia: content

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During 2001–2, the year before the encyclopedia funds were accessible, chief historian Jock Phillips and senior historian Bronwyn Dalley began planning the project. They hosted a workshop with academics and experts and two hui with Māori scholars. Phillips and Dalley visited every university giving presentations, soliciting ideas and talking with people who might join advisory committees or become contributors.

In May 2002 the Reference Group was established within the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to develop the encyclopedia. Phillips was appointed general editor and Dalley became chief historian in the History Group.

No ‘a’

An early decision made by Jock Phillips and Bronwyn Dalley was to call the project an ‘encyclopedia’, not an ‘encyclopaedia’. This was partly to differentiate it from the old Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and partly to suggest a forward-looking approach. In the first 12 years of the project, no complaints about this ‘Americanism’ were received.

Structure of an entry

The first task was to work out the encyclopedia’s scale and units of production. It was decided there would be about 1,000 entries. Initially it was thought that entries might range from 200 to 10,000 words, with an average of 2,000 words, giving a total of 2 million words. This was subsequently adjusted to 1,000–5,000 words per entry. Particular topics, which in print encyclopedias had short (100–200-word) descriptions, would be contained within these entries.

Topics and themes

The initial idea was that the encyclopedia’s topic boxes would be themed – ‘Did you know?’, ‘Uniquely New Zealand’, ‘Kiwi words’, ‘A bit of a dag’, and ‘Whakataukī’ were some of the suggested themes. Ultimately these distinctions were dropped as overly complex and restrictive.

What would an entry consist of? Dalley and Phillips spent hours looking at overseas examples of websites and printed encyclopedias to decide how a digital entry might differ from a conventional printed entry. They decided an entry should have a home (front) page with a contents list, and that the text would be divided into sub-entries of around 500 words – about the size that could easily fit into a long screen page. The pages would include topic boxes both to break up the text and add colour. They also decided, following overseas models, that thumbnails in a column down the right side of the screen were the best way to add media such as images or video.

To test the structure two draft entries were prepared, one on the Irish and one on wine. The ‘Irish’ entry was published on the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s corporate website.

Imitation the best flattery

The ‘Irish’ entry clearly worked well, because some months after it appeared on the ministry website, the whole text and some of the images were reproduced word-for-word in a magazine – without permission or acknowledgement.

Short story

After looking at overseas examples, especially a digitised Canadian encyclopedia, it was decided that there should be a simplified version of each entry for children and speakers of English as a foreign language. This became the ‘short story’, a summary of each entry written in simple language.

By the time Phillips began work most of these decisions had been taken. At its first meeting Te Ara’s Advisory Committee considered the design too text-heavy. As a result a trail of images, maps and other media was developed as an alternative route through the content, with each item and caption telling the story.

Thematic structure

Early on it had been realised that web publication would allow content to be prepared thematically, with a print A–Z published at the end. This would allow clustering of expertise and offer the opportunity for themed launches during the project.

A major challenge was to work out the thematic sequence. Phillips and Dalley spent much time examining printed encyclopedias and websites, working out the most common divisions. Dalley suggested a six-part structure. In 2001 historian Malcolm McKinnon was contracted for three months to prepare a report on possible themes. He also suggested a six-part division, with one theme focusing on Māori. However, it was decided that Māori content should be included in every theme as it was prepared, to ensure that it was not ghettoised.

Discussion continued about the structure. What would be the right number of themes? Too many would be confusing for users and hard to organise; too few would diminish the advantage of periodic launches. Eventually it seemed that about nine themes, approximately one a year, was a good compromise. It was also decided that the encyclopedia’s gazetteer function would be covered by a Places theme, which would be prepared alongside the other themes and provide the opportunity for regular launches to promote Te Ara in the regions.

By the end of 2002 Phillips had developed a possible nine-part sequence. To test whether the proposed themes were of even length, the entries in the 1966 encyclopedia were distributed across the themes. Then the exercise was repeated, but reducing the earlier publication’s heavy institutional emphasis and adding more scientific, Māori and social content. This suggested that the proposed thematic structure did indeed provide relatively evenly sized themes. The structure was presented to the Advisory Committee and Te Ara Wānanga (the Māori advisory committee) in a joint day-long session, and the plan was confirmed. A final decision was that in science-focused themes, the human story would be treated alongside the scientific entries.

Encyclopedia on the instalment plan

A concern of the Advisory Committee was that when Te Ara went live only a tenth of the content would be available, and users expecting a comprehensive guide to New Zealand might feel cheated. The response comprised two elements.

  • The 1966 encyclopedia was digitised by the Electronic Text Centre at Victoria University of Wellington.
  • A series of eight entries introducing New Zealand was prepared under the title New Zealand in Brief.

Both were launched on the site with the first theme.

How to cite this page:

the Te Ara team, 'Te Ara – a history - Planning the encyclopedia: content', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/te-ara-a-history/page-2 (accessed 25 March 2019)