The New Zealand government first prepared reference works for the 1940 centennial. An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, was published in 1966.
The Dictionary of New Zealand biography and New Zealand historical atlas were produced in the late 20th century. A proposal for a new internet-based encyclopedia was approved in 2001.
Historians Jock Phillips and Bronwyn Dalley planned the encyclopedia project. They decided to have about 1,000 entries, each of 1,000–5,000 words. Each entry would have a home page and several sub-entries, with media such as photos and videos, and a ‘short story’ (a simply written summary). Content would be prepared in nine themes.
Phillips was appointed general editor. Three advisory committees were set up – a general committee, a Māori committee (Te Ara Wānanga) and a Pātaka committee to advise on media such as images and video. Managers were appointed, a brand identity was developed and the name ‘Te Ara’ was agreed on. Shift were the designers. Technical solutions were chosen so the site’s look and feel could be updated without re-creating it from scratch.
It was important to Jock Phillips to include Māori knowledge in the encyclopedia. It was decided that Māori content would occur throughout Te Ara. At first it was planned to translate the whole encyclopedia into Māori, but limited funding meant only the Māori-focused entries were translated.
The first theme was New Zealand Peoples, intended as a mihi (greeting) to all the country’s people, and to engage Māori with entries on iwi. Themes followed on the land, natural history, society and culture, with a final theme on creative life. The Places theme covered New Zealand regions.
Each theme had a specialist editor or editors, who were experts in the area. Theme launches were a chance to raise public awareness of Te Ara.
Preparing Te Ara
Te Ara was prepared by a team of:
- writers (scientists, historians and social scientists, depending on the topics), who researched and wrote entries, and checked entries written by external authors
- editors, who edited the text and uploaded content to the site
- resource researchers, who found images, video and other resources for the site, and got permission to use them
- designers, who developed the site’s visual styles, prepared images and produced maps, graphs and other material.
Te Ara includes more than 3,000 biographies, most originally published in the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB). The DNZB project ran from 1983 to 2000. Five print volumes were published and in 2002 a website was launched. The biographies were included in Te Ara in 2010, and 15 new biographies were added. A new publishing programme commenced in 2018 with the publication of 25 new entries in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage, and a new ongoing annual publishing cycle commenced in 2019.
Te Ara encourages users to submit their own stories and to comment on image and media pages. Signposts, Te Ara’s blog, was launched in 2007. Te Ara uses Flickr, Twitter and Facebook to interact with users.
Responses and influence
In 2017 Te Ara was being accessed about 600,000 times a month. Many users were New Zealand school students, but there were visitors from almost every country on Earth.
Te Ara has advised on other such projects worldwide, and is often used by the media as an authoritative source on New Zealand. It has won a number of national and international awards, and has published a number of books based on its content.