Kōrero: Te Ara – a history

Whārangi 6. Thematic structure

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero


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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

the Te Ara team, 'Te Ara – a history - Thematic structure', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/te-ara-a-history/page-6 (accessed 2 July 2022)