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Te Ara – a history

by the Te Ara team

Kauri forest, gay men’s lives, marae protocol, kiwi, the women’s movement, farm fencing, gold mining, the Treaty of Waitangi, the electoral system, picnics and barbecues, and much more – Te Ara the Encyclopedia of New Zealand covers all aspects of New Zealand life. This ground-breaking, award-winning national treasure was developed over 12 years.

Origins of Te Ara


The New Zealand government first became involved in the preparation of reference works for the 1940 centennial. The centennial branch of the Department of Internal Affairs prepared a 30-part pictorial monthly, Making New Zealand; a series of 11 books on aspects of the country’s history; Guy Scholefield’s Dictionary of New Zealand biography; and a never-completed historical atlas. In 1956 approval was given for an encyclopedia, and from 1959 to 1966 parliamentary historian Alexander McLintock edited the three-volume Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.

Publishing success

The publishing history of the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand suggests that the profit motive was never a primary concern. All 31,000 copies sold in three months, at £7 10s. a set (more than $280 in 2014 terms). However, the publisher, the Government Printer, decided to leave it at that and the volumes were never reprinted.

In 1983 former chief historian Ian Wards prepared a feasibility study for a new four-volume New Zealand encyclopedia to be prepared over six years and published by the Government Printing Office at a retail cost of $240 a set. The proposal was not approved.

However, two further reference projects did proceed in the Department of Internal Affairs – the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (1983–2000), which produced five volumes of more than 3,000 biographies (with Māori biographies also published in Māori), and the New Zealand historical atlas (1989–97), which surveyed New Zealand history through maps and graphics.

In 1990 Minister of Internal Affairs Michael Bassett approved a Lottery Board grant of $200,000 to the Historical Branch of the department to begin work on a new encyclopedia. Given the heavy involvement of many scholars in the dictionary and atlas projects, chief historian Jock Phillips decided that the time was not right to work on a new encyclopedia. Instead the funds were used to prepare Women together, a dictionary of women’s organisations for the 1993 women’s suffrage centennial.

1998 proposal

With the dictionary and historical atlas projects ending, scholarly resources were available for a new encyclopedia. Publishers, especially David Bateman, were keen. So in 1998 the Historical Branch made a budget bid for a new, three-volume, 1.5-million-word printed encyclopedia, using the money allocated in the baseline for the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB). This would be prepared over seven years. The bid was rejected. A secondary bid was also rejected for a digital encyclopedia of New Zealand, involving the digitisation of the historical atlas, the Dictionary of New Zealand biography and some additional history essays, to be prepared over three years.

Orange site

Click Suite designed the DNZB website, and came up with a bright orange theme. It was insisted that this choice had nothing to do with the general editor of the dictionary, Claudia Orange.

2000 proposal

In 1999 the Heritage Group of the Department of Internal Affairs launched NZHistory, a website devoted to New Zealand history. Its success suggested the possibility of an online encyclopedia. At the same time funding was obtained via the New Zealand Historical Association for a website of the DNZB as a millennium project. It was launched in 2002 as

In July 2000 the Heritage Group joined the (renamed) Ministry for Culture and Heritage, with Prime Minister Helen Clark as minister. In February of that year a three-volume encyclopedia over seven years had been proposed, initially to be prepared on the internet in themes. This proposal too was rejected.

Judith Tizard as associate minister requested further work on the proposal. The digital aspects were advanced, with an emphasis on progressive publication on the web, much multimedia content, user involvement and cooperation with the major libraries, archives and museums. In late 2000 a new budget bid was submitted. The proposal was for six themes, to be prepared two at a time over periods of two-and-a-half years, with the total time to be eight years. An A–Z print publication of 2 million words would be produced at the end. A team of three researchers/writers, one image researcher and two people to work on Māori content was proposed.

Tizard briefed Paul Swain (minister of communications and information technology), and arranged a briefing with Michael Cullen as minister of finance. A presentation outlining a proposed entry on sealing was prepared. At the end of the meeting the minister indicated his support. $1.283 million a year for eight years was approved in the budget of May 2001, with funding beginning in 2002, to allow a year’s planning.

Planning the encyclopedia: content

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.

Planning the encyclopedia: process, look and feel

Advisory committees

General editor Jock Phillips decided that the encyclopedia should be supported by three advisory committees.

  • A general committee was set up to advise the general editor and the minister for culture and heritage on the strategic direction, content and approach of the encyclopedia. The chair, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was appointed by the minister. The other members were chosen by the general editor to represent a range of scholarly disciplines, geographical locations and interests. There was also a representative of the Ministry of Education (Murray Brown) and the chairs of the two other committees.
  • Te Ara Wānanga was intended to obtain Māori input into the project. Careful work went into ensuring good representation from iwi around the country. Ranginui Walker chaired the committee.
  • The Pātaka committee was designed to provide input into the use of resources (images, videos, audio and the like). It included representatives of the major repositories (such as libraries, archives and museums) and was chaired by Allison Dobbie, general manager of Auckland Public Libraries.

Internal management team

Following Phillips’s appointment as general editor, Ross Somerville was appointed as production manager to plan the technology and editing principles of the encyclopedia. In addition Claudia Orange, Nancy Swarbrick and Shirley Williams, who had worked on the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB), were co-opted into the project as regional editor, managing editor (in charge of the writing team) and manager of resources respectively. With the assistance of the Māori committee, Rangi McGarvey was appointed editor Māori. This group of six met regularly to plan:

  • the nature of links to the DNZB website
  • the criteria for the print and web further sources in each entry
  • the number and definition of the regions in the Places theme
  • the workflow for an entry
  • a guide for contributors.

Phillips was overall Reference Group manager until September 2011, when he was succeeded by Janine Faulknor (but remained senior editor).

Appointments of staff

There was one further task to do before Te Ara began in earnest: appoint a team to build the site. This was an exhaustive and exhausting process. Advertising was supplemented with approaches to particular communities – to attract a good designer the team visited the Whanganui School of Design; for people to help research images and other resources, they wrote to museums throughout the country; and university departments were approached for writers. The response was heartening – over 250 people applied to be writers.

Then came the choosing of the people. Every shortlisted applicant for every position was given a realistic test – writers had to prepare a draft entry, resourcers were given a page of text and asked to find appropriate supporting material and editors were given pieces to edit. This gave the team confidence that they had capable people – and so it proved. The success of Te Ara has been utterly dependent upon staff who believed passionately in the project, had high standards and worked extraordinarily well together.


Before the provision of design and technology for the encyclopedia went out to RFP (request for proposal), some background work had to be completed. There were two important stages.

  • At an all-day workshop in November 2002 the management team of the encyclopedia worked with Kim Wicksteed to develop a brand identity. It was suggested that a short Māori name for the encyclopedia would be appropriate.
  • At the second hui of the Māori committee in December 2002 various short names were discussed. Eventually there was a consensus on Te Ara (the pathway).

Design and technology

In November 2002 registrations of interest were requested for hosting the site, a content management system and web design. There were 22 responses; five were shortlisted. They were given a request for tender (RFT) document, and asked to prepare a prototype. Preparation of the RFT document was an exhaustive exercise, requiring every step in the process to be spelled out, along with the exact nature of an entry. As a result of the exercise Shift were chosen as designers, working with Optimation as technology partners. A contract was signed by the prime minister on 14 May 2003.

Look and feel

The contract included further brand work by Designworks, who subsequently produced the distinctive Te Ara logo, plus a strapline, ‘What’s the story?’ Shift then built on the work of Designworks to develop mood boards expressing the look and feel of the site.

Production and technical aspects

Principles and standards

Alongside the conceptual and content planning for the website, principles and technical standards were formulated to guide the next phase. After researching best practice for flexibility of web content, the team decided on the following principles:

  • separation of content from presentation
  • support for bilingual content (Māori and English) and a bilingual interface
  • use of open standards
  • management of content outside proprietary systems.

Site content would be prepared and delivered in such a way that the site’s look and feel could be changed and updated without having to re-create it completely. The web technology for ensuring this was CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), in conjunction with HTML encoding of the text. Applying open standards would ensure that the content could not be locked into any particular software and could be re-used in a variety of ways.

Responses to the tender process

These principles were written into the tender documentation as mandatory. This caused some head-scratching amongst the respondents, and some creative solutions. Some were more robust than others.

At one end of the spectrum were proposals to use established content management systems, designed to handle large volumes of data, customisable to a limited extent, and extremely expensive to license and implement – beyond the level of Te Ara’s resources. At the other end were purpose-built applications, promoted with enthusiasm and confidence by geeky programmers. The high end seemed likely to threaten the site with inflexible methodologies, and at the creative end there were risks to the site’s schema and intentions.

The chosen solution

A consultant project manager was employed on the tender and evaluation processes for several months during 2002. A rigorous evaluation process, carried out by Jock Phillips and Ross Somerville with the assistance of Jamie Mackay and Ian Kemp, included interviews with lead developers and reference checks.

It was decided to use the Microsoft Content Management Server (MCMS) to deliver the web pages, but with authoritative versions of the content managed outside the content management system (CMS). A ‘batch upload’ process was used to create entries on the website, using XML (eXtensible Markup Language) documents to define all elements of the web pages, including styles.

The batch upload process tied together the non-text content (images, sound files and so on, held in the ministry’s file system, with metadata managed in a relational database) and the XML documents.

It was decided to store all text in a software-neutral format. This made it easy to check that the web pages were valid, so the website would not ‘break’. The content had a defined structure for all pages and page elements, which in principle were infinitely variable and extensible, future-proofing the site.

Te Ara’s editors managed the essential work of pre-production, formatting the XML and other documents, uploading them to a staging website and publishing them to the live site. They also made and managed all updates, corrections and changes to the site content, while the design team created the digital assets, many of them from scratch, and made improvements to the way the site worked, in conjunction with contracted developers.

Not so Flash

In the early years of Te Ara, animations and interactives were built in Shockwave (later Adobe) Flash. This was the most popular program at the time, but these resources were inaccessible to screen readers and did not work on iPhones and tablets. It was decided to rebuild them all in HTML 5.

Migration to Drupal and subsequent developments

In 2009, as Microsoft had stopped supporting MCMS, and in the light of the increasing development of more flexible, open-source and non-proprietary solutions, Te Ara commissioned evaluations of a range of options. The NZHistory site had already decided to use Drupal open-source content management software, and Te Ara decided to follow suit. This would also give the Te Ara team greater control and flexibility in the evolving design of the site, and a newer, flexible technology at a lower cost.

The migration was contracted to Headfirst, who worked with Shift to convert the site’s look and feel to work with the new back end.

Scraping the site

The content migration to Drupal was complex; there was no way to programmatically extract the content from the CMS, where it was stored as BLOBs (Binary Large Objects), which could not be decoded. The site was ‘scraped’ and re-created using Drupal.

A modified version of the original XML upload process was implemented. This was simplified, as a larger amount of the file management could be done via the Drupal interface.

The site was redesigned in-house and relaunched in 2011 with improved usability and performance. In 2013 the version of Drupal was upgraded.

In 2017 the site was maintained by in-house developers with some service agreements with outside firms. There had been some convergence in the ministry’s website platforms, which promised better integration between sites and production efficiencies in the future.

Māori content, biculturalism and translation

The path to a bicultural reference work

From the inception of Te Ara its general editor, Jock Phillips, had a strong desire to see Māori cultural and intellectual knowledge appropriately reflected in the encyclopedia. He decided to seek advice from the Māori community, and two hui were held. The first was at Auckland University, organised by Manuka Henare. The second was at Massey University in Palmerston North, organised by Mason Durie. Taiarahia Black and Monty Soutar were important contributors. The hui recommended that Te Ara follow the Dictionary of New Zealand biography and Historical atlas models, both of which incorporated a Māori advisory committee.

Te Ara Wānanga

A Māori advisory committee was set up under the leadership of Ranginui Walker. At one of the early meetings Wharehuia Milroy made a call to arms for the committee, noting its role was ‘keeping the canoes in battle formation to reach our destination’.1 An early task of the committee was to assist in employing a Māori editor. The inaugural Māori editor was Rangi McGarvey, who was succeeded by Basil Keane in early 2005. The committee was also responsible for the name 'Te Ara' for the encyclopedia.

Wētā, ferns and treasures

Te Ara Wānanga considered a number of options for names for the encyclopedia. These included Ngā Wētā (Wētās), Tātai Hikohiko (Digital genealogies), Rarauhe Hiriwa (Silver fern), Te Mātāpuna (The source) and Te Kura Nui (The great treasure). On the final shortlist were Ngā Pakiaka (The roots), Te Awa Kōrero (River of discourse) and Te Ara Rau (The many paths). The last was chosen and simplified to Te Ara.

The committee made a decision to rename itself in recognition of Charles Royal's observation that 'Māori committee' was a ‘somewhat inelegant term’.2 He noted that the committee was like a wānanga (traditional house of learning), as it took the role of creating new knowledge. Royal suggested the title Te Ara Wānanga, and this was accepted as the new name of the Māori advisory committee.

Māori thematic content

An early decision made with the advice of Te Ara Wānanga was to spread the Māori theme out across the encyclopedia. Within each theme the general editor and Māori editor would put together a draft list of entries and run them past Te Ara Wānanga for advice. Around 170 Māori-focused entries were published overall, with the intention of eventually bringing them together as a single theme.

Iwi entries

The first theme of Te Ara, New Zealand Peoples, was, as Phillips noted, about New Zealanders introducing themselves to each other. As well as entries on nationalities who settled in New Zealand, there were entries for the major Māori iwi (tribes). The Māori conception of this as expressed at Te Ara Wānanga was 'Nō hea koe?' (Where are you from?). It was decided that the Māori editor would approach iwi and ask who they wanted to write their entries. The list of entries was drawn up by Rangi McGarvey and Charles Royal before being confirmed by Te Ara Wānanga. There are 34 iwi entries, some of which include clusters of iwi.


The initial plan was to translate the entire encyclopedia. However, resource constraints meant that only entries with a Māori focus were translated. A translator was appointed and the initial set-up of translation was overseen by Te Ara Kōmiti Whakamāori (the Māori translation committee). Initially quality assurance was provided by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission). Later, experienced external translators took over the quality assurance function. After the integration of the Dictionary of New Zealand biography into Te Ara the combined te reo (Māori-language) corpus on Te Ara was over a million words. There is no bigger corpus of historical writing in te reo Māori on the internet.

    • Te Ara Wānanga meeting, 2 December 2002. Back
    • Te Ara Wānanga meeting, 2 December 2002. Back

Thematic structure


The sequence of themes began with New Zealand Peoples, the theme on arrivals. This theme was intended as a mihi (greeting) to all the people of the country, and to engage Māori early on through entries on iwi. It also took advantage of general editor Jock Phillips’s strengths in immigration history. There followed groupings of several themes on the land, natural history, society and culture. The final theme on creative life was intended as a compelling ending to the encyclopedia’s initial construction.

Theme editors and their role

Each of Te Ara’s 10 themes had a specialist editor or editors. These were academics or other experts who provided intellectual oversight and rigour. At the beginning of each theme Phillips and the theme editor would compile a list of about 100 entries that gave comprehensive and balanced coverage of the subject area. The list was presented to Te Ara’s general and Māori advisory committees for feedback and suggestions of possible writers. It was then discussed with Te Ara’s writing team and final revisions made before entries were assigned to internal and external writers. Each theme editor was also given some entries to write.

When an entry was completed it was given to Phillips and the theme editor to determine if it required revisions. The entry was either returned to the author to make changes or given to an internal writer to complete.

Starting from scratch

Usually the balance between expert external and internal writers for a theme was 60:40. But for the Economy and City theme the lack of experts on urban issues meant the ratio was reversed. With a dearth of published material on many of the topics, internal writers undertook much original research to finish the entries.


The Places theme stood out in having fewer and longer entries, which were developed concurrently with the other themes. The purpose of each was to provide essential information on a region and examine its particular identity or sense of place. Each entry was divided into two parts. The first examined the region as a whole – its history, environment, culture and statistical profile – and the second explored specific places and natural features.

There was some early debate about how to divide New Zealand into regions. To what extent did modern territorial boundaries define regions and how far were they historically constructed? In the end Te Ara largely adopted the regional divisions used in the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, based on old county boundaries.

Theme character

The first themes on Māori and non-Māori drew on experts on particular iwi and immigrant communities. The next themes – The Bush, and Earth, Sea and Sky – had a strong scientific bent. Subsequent themes were social-science- and humanities-orientated.

The diversity of subjects, writers and source material gave each theme a particular character. The Māori New Zealanders theme was heavily based on oral tradition and was strongly narrative; the Social Connections theme drew greatly on quantitative research like social surveys and was more analytical.


An advantage of the thematic approach was that it offered the opportunity for a sequence of public launches. These were designed to raise public awareness of Te Ara and Manatū Taonga the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, as well as to gain community support for the project. Most themes were launched by prominent politicians, including Prime Minister Helen Clark, Minister for Communications and Information Technology Steven Joyce and Minister for Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson. Governor-General Jerry Mateparae launched the Government and Nation theme.

Using a projector, Jock Phillips would take the guests on a quick tour of Te Ara, the dignitary would launch the theme, and then the theme editor would provide a ‘tasting’ of the new material. At the end of the presentation the audience would be encouraged to go to their home computers and ‘sup a full glass’.

Most launches were held in Wellington, but the Settled Landscape launch was at Massey University’s Palmerston North campus, a reflection of the theme’s strong agricultural content. A plan for a Christchurch launch of the Social Connections theme was scuttled by the 2011 earthquake. The Daily Life, Sport and Recreation launch featured a debate broadcast on the Radio Sport Network.

In the nick of time

On the morning of the Taranaki launch, fog closed Wellington airport. Rather than cancel, general editor Jock Phillips, resources team leader Janine Faulknor and others decided to hire a car and drive to New Plymouth. Arriving in the late afternoon, the team spent a frantic few hours loading up the presentation and crossing their fingers that the technology would hold. They finished as the first guests arrived. The launch went off without a hitch.

Most of the Places entries had their own launch in the main city or town of the region concerned. These were normally launched by local mayors. Again, an aim was to raise the profile of Te Ara outside of Wellington, but another was to present the stories of the region to their own communities. Some launches went better than others. The Bay of Plenty entry had two launches, one in Tauranga and the other in Whakatāne. At the first launch Te Ara staff nearly outnumbered the guests; the second happily teemed with people.

Writing and editing


Te Ara entries are a first port of call for anyone interested in the topics they cover. They are essentially an overview and contain the most salient and up-to-date information required for a good understanding of the subject. Visual resources provide more details, and links to further, more in-depth sources are given.

The level of detail varies between entries, but all are supported by solid research, mainly using secondary sources. In cases where topics did not have much secondary literature, primary research was necessary, so Te Ara entries broke new ground. Examples were the ‘Pets’ and ‘Anniversaries’ entries.


All entries are written in plain, authoritative English. Simple words are preferred over complex ones to cater for a general audience. Many of the entries cover complicated topics, and Te Ara makes them accessible to non-experts.

Plain English suits Te Ara’s website format. Entries are divided into pages (known as subentries) of up to 700 words, and these pages are divided by clear subheadings. This format makes the text easy to read on screen.

Topic boxes

All Te Ara entries have topic boxes (of which this is one), which sit alongside the main text of an entry. They contain quirky and funny information, or something relevant to the topic but not needed in the main text. Suitable topic-box stories were precious, and writers seized upon potential gems during the research process.


Entries have been written by in-house writers and external experts. In-house writers were employed based on their subject expertise and ability to write about topics simply and clearly.

Science experts were employed to work on the themes Earth, Sea and Sky, The Bush and The Settled Landscape (2004–7), while historians worked on the Economy and the City, Social Connections, Government and Nation, Daily Life, Sport and Recreation, and Creative and Intellectual Life themes (2007–14).

Writers’ meetings

Every couple of weeks Te Ara writers got together to discuss the entries they were working on, to solicit suggestions and solve problems. The collective knowledge of the writers was considerable and diverse, and meetings were typically full of good suggestions. Many eyes pored over Te Ara entries before they were published.

In-house writers usually chose which entries they worked on, unless it was obvious that a topic should be covered by an outside person with extensive expertise. Expert authors lend extra credibility to entries – well-known authors include former prime minister and constitutional law expert Geoffrey Palmer, historians James Belich, Judith Binney and Ranginui Walker, and scientist Trevor Worthy. All externally written entries were checked by in-house writers for accuracy and completeness and to ensure consistency of style.


Te Ara’s small team of editors were employed for their ability to edit for the web, general knowledge, attention to detail and technical facility. Editors copy-edited entries and captions for flow and sense, ensuring that they were written in clear, accessible, plain English and that they conformed to Te Ara house style. The editors made sure that entries were grammatically correct and free of typos and spelling mistakes, and that Māori words were correctly macronised.

The case of the missing capitals

When draft entries were sent to external authors for review, there were many complaints about the lack of capitalisation of book and film titles. A lower-case style was adopted in Te Ara to be consistent with the house style of the Dictionary of New Zealand biography. That style was drawn up by the dictionary’s original copy-editor, Brigid Pike. She based her decision on the Chicago manual of style’s preference for minimising capitals in titles of persons and institutions, which was then extended to bibliographical style.

These staff also wrote the blurbs and short stories which introduce each entry. The blurb is a teaser intended to whet a reader’s appetite; the short story is a condensed version of the entry. Written in simple language, it is aimed at younger users or readers for whom English is a second language – or those who simply want a quick overview of a topic.

Editors worked on not only Te Ara entries and accompanying captions, but also Te Ara’s blog Signposts, leaflets, invitations, books, other material for the site, and the text components of resources produced in-house such as maps, diagrams and graphs.

They were also responsible for ‘production’ – uploading material to and negotiating the site’s content management system. They made corrections and updates to entries as needed, both during the pre-publication review period and after publication.

Image and media research

The role of non-text content

As well as over 3 million words, by September 2014 Te Ara included around:

  • 21,900 images
  • 1,800 videos
  • 570 graphs
  • 900 maps
  • 440 diagrams
  • 950 sound files
  • 2,100 interactives.

Beyond the call of duty

Resource researchers often found themselves photographing unusual things for entries. These have included pet rats, a school worm farm and Te Ara’s general editor ingesting a variety of herbal medicines. Members of the resource team have also driven the back roads of Taranaki looking for old dairy factories, searched the Waikato for Māori carvings and cooked a roast duck dinner.

Collectively, these are called resources, and they do more than illustrate the text. Resources add value, tell stories and often provide the opportunity to talk about ideas that do not fit within the strict word limits of the entries.


A Pātaka committee was established in 2002 to liaise between Te Ara and the institutions that would provide material for Te Ara entries. The committee comprised representatives of Archives New Zealand, the Historic Places Trust (later Heritage New Zealand), the New Zealand Film Archive (later Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision), the Alexander Turnbull Library and Auckland Museum. Allison Dobbie of Auckland City Libraries was chair. The first meetings were held in 2003.

World famous in Te Ara

Te Ara staff often contributed personal photos to be used in entries – including writer Kerryn Pollock’s son Amos hitting a piñata and resourcer Emily Tutaki celebrating her 21st. Staff whose own childhood photos appear in Te Ara include writer Carl Walrond as a child in Swaziland; resourcer Mel Lovell-Smith on her fourth birthday, with cake; production editor Caren Wilton in an Aran jersey knitted by her mother; general editor Jock Phillips playing ball in his Christchurch backyard; and Reference Group manager Janine Faulknor and her siblings swinging from a climbing frame in suburban Wainuiomata.

In 2002 general editor Jock Phillips and resources team manager Shirley Williams began to negotiate memoranda of understanding and licensing agreements with many organisations and repositories, including TVNZ, the Alexander Turnbull Library, Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (later Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision), Archives New Zealand, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, NIWA, the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Herald. Further agreements were signed with scientific institutions such as GNS Science in 2004.

Over time the resourcing team came to include a specialist Māori researcher and staff who focused on copyright clearance.

Resources research

Resourcers searched out images, video, sound and other material for each entry from a multitude of sources, taking about a week to research each entry. Because of the physical location and time restrictions, the Alexander Turnbull Library and Archives New Zealand were the primary local sources, but there were also:

  • online catalogues and collections for material held in New Zealand and international museums, galleries, archives and libraries
  • published sources
  • private collections
  • professional and amateur photographers
  • newspapers
  • Crown research institute and government department archives and libraries, including those of the Department of Conservation, NIWA and GNS Science.

Purple, pink, green and yellow

A system of different coloured forms developed to chart the progress of the thousands of resources and related captions. Purple sheets were for resources that required rights clearance; green meant that the resource had been replaced or changed; pink was a reminder to publish an unpublished resource. Yellow meant that the resource was a map, graph or diagram to be made by Te Ara’s designers. Yellow sheets were known to fill people with dread when one landed on their desk for drafting or checking.

Digitisation of historical sources increased the amount of material available to be used in Te Ara.

Resources for each entry were decided at a resource meeting, which included the writer or checker of the entry, the resources manager and the general editor. These meetings could be long and involved, and often contained discussion about balance, ethics and budget. Some topics were challenging, sensitive or technical, or difficult to illustrate.

Resourcers also prepared information for graphs, maps, diagrams and interactives. For many of the entries, technical understanding of geology, economic principles and geography were needed. Facts, data and accuracy were scrupulously checked. Resourcers, writers, editors and designers were all involved in the process to ensure that the resulting graphics were accurate and comprehensible.

Heroic debate

Hero meetings, when resourcers, writers and theme and general editors met with designers to choose the hero (main image) for the entry, as well as the background colour, were often noisy. Personal tastes were expressed, intense debate sometimes ensued and cries of ‘not Coral’ were often heard (mostly from Māori editor Basil Keane). Choosing a background colour was especially difficult for one theme editor, who was colour-blind. He politely excused himself from the first hero meeting to which he was invited.


Clearing copyright and iwi permissions for resources was an ever-growing aspect of resourcing Te Ara. The rights administrators cleared copyright from private collections, photographers, newspapers, art galleries and international institutions. Eternally patient and persistent, they secured material often unavailable from any other source.

The team also worked hard on clarifying rights statements, applying Creative Commons licences to Te Ara images and other material and supplying Te Ara material in response to external requests.

Graphic design

Overall design

The overall look and feel of Te Ara was the responsibility of an outside web-design company, Shift, whose lead designer, Brian Smith, played a major role. Smith was responsible for the distinctive colours which have become a trademark of the site and have remained in subsequent redesigns.

Railway-station colours

For the first four themes Brian Smith of Shift designed a distinctive palette of colours for each theme. He normally gave each colour a name derived from the natural world, but he devised the colours for The Bush while travelling home by train on the Wellington–Paraparaumu line. The colours for that theme were named for the railway stations on the route.

In-house design

Helene Coulson, the first designer employed to work on Te Ara, developed the graphic house styles for all the content that the design team produced (maps, different graph types, alteration and optimisation guides, fonts and styles for diagrams). She also developed the production processes for the design team, which enabled the workflow to run smoothly.

Expanding role

The team soon expanded to two, then three, designers, each with their own skills, including illustration, web design, photography and graphic design.

Once the design capability increased, the in-house team began undertaking work that had originally been outsourced – from theme designs (creation of images that encapsulated the entire theme, and theme colour schemes) to the Te Ara home page, and finally the redesign of the entire site. While the original design and subsequent update of Te Ara was imagined by Shift, Te Ara’s 2011 redesign, including much of the back- and front-end development, was completed in-house.


All the thumbnail images on Te Ara are produced by hand – not using re-sizing software. This accounts for the vibrant images on Te Ara’s pages.

Interactive design

Interactive content development has also been rethought, as Flash made an exit from the web due to the prevalence of Apple devices which do not support its use. Javascript templates help to streamline the production of interactive media on Te Ara. The site and site elements are continually developed to keep up with ever-changing technology and popular usage.


Te Ara books were published and designed by Auckland publisher David Bateman. The in-house design team provided high-resolution diagrams, often redesigned for print. E-books based on Te Ara content have also been published, with the team designing their covers.

Web developers

The in-house team that was assembled to design Te Ara expanded to include developers. In 2017 the team worked on multiple design and web projects for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and other government departments. As the future of digital publishing broadened, so did the potential for interesting and innovative design.


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. and integration with Te Ara

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. The DNZB was relaunched as a section of Te Ara in December 2010, and the stand-alone DNZB site was retired. The site’s ‘Our land, our people’ component was discontinued, as Te Ara’s greater coverage of New Zealand history had made it redundant.

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 the 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 redux

Fifteen new biographies were launched in 2010–11, the first since the conclusion of the print publication series in 2000. These biographies were commissioned to fill some notable gaps in the Dictionary’s coverage, but a lack of resources prevented the resumption of DNZB work on a larger scale at that time.

The Te Ara build phase was completed in 2014, and the following year responsibility for the DNZB shifted to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s newly-formed Research and Publishing Group. In early 2017, Chief Historian Neill Atkinson commissioned an internal study of how new DNZB work might be fitted into the Group’s digital publishing programme. The first new biography in six years, of Polynesian navigator Tupaia, was published on Te Ara in October 2017. This heralded the beginning of a new ongoing annual cycle of DNZB entries, which commenced in 2018, under the general editorship of Tim Shoebridge, with the publication of 25 entries of women as part of the Suffrage 125 celebrations. The Group now publishes a minimum of 20 new entries each year. 

Audience interaction and social media

Te Ara is known and valued as a trustworthy encyclopedia, written by experts. It was launched in the early days of Web 2.0, which included social media and Wikipedia, and encouraged internet users to also be content creators. As a result, a few critics perceived Te Ara as being elitist, and challenged it to be more inclusive.

While remaining committed to being an authoritative encyclopedia, Te Ara rose to this challenge in a number of ways.

‘Your stories’

In 2003, before Te Ara’s first theme on the peoples of New Zealand was published, a call was put out for members of the public to contribute stories about how they or their ancestors came to New Zealand. More than 200 were received, and 25 of the best were chosen to be included as ‘Your stories’ in ‘The voyage out’ entry on the website. Through a similar process Te Ara has also published contributed stories on topics including beachcombing, natural disasters, bush yarns and country schooling.

Since 2008 people have been invited to contribute their stories about any topic on Te Ara directly through the website. ‘Your stories’ have a different visual design from other Te Ara pages and are clearly attributed to their authors. They are usually lively and personal. Highlights include contributions from a survivor of the 1981 Silver Fern rail crash and from Mary Woodward, Miss New Zealand 1949.


Since mid-2010 users have been able to contribute to the website by leaving comments on image and media pages. These have ranged from serious requests for, and offers of, further information, to brief appreciative messages about popular images such as a photograph of a blobfish.

Signposts – Te Ara’s blog

Launched in November 2007, Signposts has been a place where Te Ara staff, and occasional guest bloggers, could:

  • write more informally about relevant topics and give personal perspectives
  • give a behind-the-scenes view of Te Ara at work
  • make announcements and share news
  • provide some background to current events
  • highlight some lesser-known gems on the site.

On a lighter note, there were regular quizzes, most of them compiled by Te Ara’s resident quiz mistress, designer Julia Vodanovich. By late July 2014, 584 posts had been published on Signposts.

Pre-emptive post

When Te Ara writer Carl Walrond suggested that the team should pre-write a blog post about earthquakes to publish when a large quake inevitably occurred, no one thought that event would be in Christchurch. The post listed New Zealand’s biggest past earthquakes and included links to other relevant information on Te Ara. On the morning of Saturday 4 September 2010 lead designer Heath Sadlier and editor Helen Rickerby were quickly able to add specific information about the 7.1 earthquake that had hit Canterbury at 4.35 a.m., and put it into historic context. It became one of the most popular posts on the blog.

Some of the most popular posts have been those that used information on Te Ara to put significant events, such as the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, into context. Many of these were written immediately after the events had taken place.

Posts have been written by staff from all areas of Te Ara, not just by writers, but also by designers, resource researchers, rights administrators and editors. The blog runs on the WordPress content management system and was originally designed by Shift.


In late 2008 Te Ara began using the Flickr photo-sharing site to share its own images and to source images for the website. It has set up a Te Ara pool where people can add their own images related to New Zealand. Flickr sets have been used to create galleries for Te Ara stories about different regions and for subjects such as libraries and birthday cakes.


When micro-blogging site Twitter came along, many people doubted that anything worthwhile could ever be said in a mere 140 characters. However, in early 2009 lead designer Heath Sadlier decided that Twitter was the perfect place for Te Ara to connect with its tech-savvy audience, and set up an account. Several Te Ara staff take turns to tweet about interesting images and media, facts, featured stories and biographies, and to provide context to the news of the day. Twitter is also a forum for interacting with Te Ara users and other institutions working in culture and heritage.

Other social media

In 2013 social media buttons were added to Te Ara stories so users could ‘like’ them on Facebook or share them on Twitter. Te Ara uses Facebook to share images and stories, make announcements and interact with the public.

Te Ara has used the Manatū Taonga YouTube account to share videos, especially the series of Roadside Stories audio guides to places around New Zealand, which were created for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Additionally, videos sourced from YouTube are sometimes embedded as media for Te Ara entries.

In 2013 Te Ara resource researchers set up a Pinterest account to help them research images for Te Ara stories.

Users, responses and influence

Number of visitors

The number of people using Te Ara has increased steadily, and in 2017 the site was being accessed about 500,000 times per month. Comparing the number of users year by year, it appears that school students make up a large proportion of readers, since usage rates are highest during school terms. However, the site is also accessed from almost every country in the world – about 40% of users are from outside New Zealand.

Print publications

Although it was planned and developed as an online (‘born digital’) publication, Te Ara’s content also attracted interest from more traditional publishers. A series of extensively illustrated books was produced through the publisher David Bateman. These include:

  • Māori peoples of New Zealand: ngā iwi o Aotearoa (2006)
  • Settler and migrant peoples of New Zealand (2006)
  • Life on the edge: New Zealand’s natural hazards and disasters (2007)
  • Māori tribes of New Zealand (2008)
  • New Zealanders and the sea (2009)
  • Te taiao: Māori and the natural world (2010).

Roadside Stories

The 2011 Rugby World Cup attracted many overseas visitors to New Zealand. To guide and enrich their travel within the country, Te Ara staff and Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage colleagues developed Roadside Stories. These 140 specially produced audio commentaries about New Zealand places and the people and events associated with them are each four to five minutes long and illustrated with photos and other images. Roadside Stories is available as a downloadable app for smartphones or via the Ministry’s YouTube channel.

The Te Ara hit parade

In the year to June 2014, Te Ara’s most visited entries included ‘Matariki – Māori New Year’, ’Geothermal energy’, ‘Historic earthquakes’, ‘Treaty of Waitangi’, ‘Spiders and other arachnids’ and ‘Sandflies and mosquitoes’. The site’s most popular image continued to be a photo of a blobfish (Psychrolutes species), an unprepossessing deep-sea creature with jelly-like flesh and no muscles.

Influence on other digital projects

As the world’s first (and, by 2014, still the only) national encyclopedia designed for the internet, Te Ara has been asked to advise on many other similar projects worldwide. Two Australian digital projects, the Dictionary of Sydney and Australian Dictionary of Biography, formed a planning and advisory body together with Te Ara and some other institutions, called the Australia and New Zealand Digital Encyclopedias Group (ANZDEG).

In the early 2000s all US states took part in a scoping study to investigate the feasibility of creating digital state encyclopedias. Te Ara general editor Jock Phillips played a key part in this study. By 2014 five states and the incorporated territory of Guam had launched digital encyclopedias.

In 2002 Phillips, representing users of digital content, helped to found the National Digital Forum (NDF) with national librarian Chris Blake, to discuss major and innovative digital projects. The NDF has since held an annual conference at which leading international speakers explore directions in digital information design.

Influence on other media

By 2014 Te Ara was frequently cited in national and international newspapers, magazines and other media as an authoritative source on New Zealand. Occasionally a Te Ara story has made the front page, as with a topic box on the predominance of left-foot jandals in the entry on beachcombing.

The 2007 Gibson Group TV series Here to stay, in which New Zealand personalities examined settler groups in New Zealand, was based on Te Ara’s entries on immigration.

Several Te Ara writers were asked to contribute to Radio New Zealand National’s 2011–12 Kiwi summer series, and Jock Phillips was a regular commentator on historical subjects on the programme Nights with Bryan Crump.

Other users

Comments on Te Ara’s blog from teachers and lecturers indicate that the site is widely used for school projects, NCEA exam papers, university theses and lectures. Te Ara images and text have been used by several museum exhibitions, such as Te Papa’s Whales – Tohorā exhibition, which has travelled to the US and Canada. Te Ara material also appeared on New Zealand’s stand at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair.

In her 2009 valedictory speech, former prime minister Helen Clark looked back on ‘years of significant [heritage] projects’ including ‘the new, “born digital”, official encyclopaedia – Te Ara’.1


Te Ara has won a number of national and international awards, including:

  • a Best graphic design award (2004)
  • two Bearing Point awards, for innovation in services to Māori, and in the public service (2005)
  • a Webby award, International Academy for the Digital Arts and Sciences (2006)
  • a Govis Buzzie award (2006)
  • a Writemark award for best plain English in the public sector (2008)
  • Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards – non-fiction winner for Te taiao: Māori and the natural world (2011).

How to cite this page: the Te Ara team, 'Te Ara – a history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2021)

Story by the Te Ara team