Exploring Māori content on Te Ara

Te Hono ki Hawaiki, the meeting house at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Te Hono ki Hawaiki, the meeting house at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Over the last few days I’ve been looking at content related to Māori subjects on Te Ara. This was in part inspired by a conversation earlier this year about its visibility with the former Māori editor, Basil Keane. You can find a lot of this content using the Te Reo Māori browse, which takes you through to all the translated stories. There are 127 translated stories (which doesn’t include the translated DNZB biographies) and we have a further 50 or so that we’re translating at the moment.

Looking at Te Ara’s homepage you don’t get a great sense of the richness of this content, or an idea of how much there is. For some people, they’ve found the New Zealand in Brief entry, Māori, and decided that’s all there is. A pretty poor show, is the obvious conclusion, and while we’re trying to pull people into the deeper content with links in the text, it’s possibly not the most obvious thing we can do.

If we look at our web traffic, it’s also possible to see that a lot of people go to pages from the 1966 Encyclopedia. It’s now 50 years out of date, so it’s not a great look, but where it succeeds is by having short articles on big subjects like Māori Art – a short, search-engine friendly title to encompass everything on the subject.

Te Ara, on the other hand, has quite rightly split that huge subject up into several stories and placed them in their wider context as part of the broad sweep of New Zealand subjects. So we have stories in the Visual Arts section (contemporary art, rock art, weaving and tukutuku, and carving), in Music (composers, musical instruments, and contemporary and traditional waiata), and Performing Arts (kapa haka, and theatre), to name a few.

Stories on Māori subjects appear right across Te Ara in all themes, from people to the natural world, economy and society to government, and daily and creative life. In all there are 169 stories on Māori related subjects, or roughly 17% of all 980 entries currently on Te Ara.

How we make it easier to explore and more visible on the site is an exciting challenge and one we’re keen to hear your thoughts about. For now I’ve made a spreadsheet so we can at least get a sense of what we’re trying to present. Feel free to browse it and maybe use as a starting point for exploring Te Ara:

>> Te Ara te reo and Māori content November 2015

Working how to present this content will provide a key to presenting other subjects where related entries appear across different themes. It might follow in the footsteps of what we’ve done using keywords on NZHistory to present related material, like this Te Reo subject page, or we might look at redeveloping the stories in New Zealand in Brief to act as entry points to deeper content.

Ignoring the lessons of history at Pike River

An explosion at the remote Pike River mine on 19 November 2010 killed 29 men. To mark the fifth anniversary of this disaster, a feature has been prepared on the NZHistory website outlining the background to the explosion and its aftermath.

We can look back with disbelief that such a terrible industrial accident could happen in the 21st century. The management of the Pike River mine certainly believed that their mining methods, using modern technology, were safer and more efficient than the more traditional way underground mines had been run in the past. But information on the disaster bears a tragic resemblance to previous explosions.

One of the major problems in underground coal mining is methane gas, continuously expelled from coal seams, and potentially explosive when mixed with air. In New Zealand a total of 211 men have been killed in nine separate methane explosions since coal mining started in the late 19th century. All the explosions can be attributed to faulty ventilation combined with poor safety practices.

The nine explosions are widely spaced over 130 years, including Kaitangata (1879, 34 deaths), Brunner (1896, 65 deaths), Huntly (1914, 43 deaths), Strongman (1967, 19 deaths) and Pike River (2010, 29 deaths). Successive Commissions of Enquiry have recommended improved safety measures, but it appears that the dangers of methane explosions are gradually forgotten as each generation of experienced mine workers retires. Continuing vigilance is needed to ensure that younger miners and mine managers are aware of the hidden dangers of underground mining.

The report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy makes depressing reading. There is not a single, simple cause, but rather a cumulative succession of errors and misjudgements. It was certainly intended to run the mine with state-of-the-art methane monitoring, but shortcuts were taken because of construction delays and mounting debts, and the gas monitoring equipment was never properly installed and calibrated. There had been many warnings of high methane levels and small explosions, but these were ignored. The Inspector of Mines was on the verge of closing the mine, but was assured by the management that everything was under control.

The best way we can remember the 29 men killed at Pike River – and the others killed in the preceding eight mine explosions – is to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. Underground coal mines should not operate unless they are regularly inspected and conform to the highest safety standards.

An incident form submitted by mine shift supervisor Dene Murphy in June 2010. The Pike River mine's incident register records many attempts by Murphy to draw attention to failings in ventilation and gas management, but these were never followed up. Source: Royal Commission report on the Pike River disaster

An incident form submitted by mine shift supervisor Dene Murphy in June 2010. The Pike River mine's incident register records many attempts by Murphy to draw attention to failings in ventilation and gas management, but these were never followed up. Source: Royal Commission report on the Pike River disaster

Looking ahead

Last week we said farewell to a number of staff who have worked on Te Ara since its final theme, Creative and Intellectual Life, was published at the end of last year. In that time they have put in place systems and processes for maintaining Te Ara into the future and we want to acknowledge here all their efforts.

Nancy Swarbrick led the team as Senior Editor, and worked with Kerryn Pollock to write and revise the many words that make up the encyclopedia; Mel Lovell-Smith and Emily Tutaki researched the wonderful images and multi-media items that illustrate those words, and Caren Wilton edited and ran the production system behind the website. All have made a huge contribution, not just in the last year but over many years as part of the team that built Te Ara into what it is today.

While we say farewell to these staff we remain deeply committed to maintaining and developing Te Ara, and cementing its place as a valued taonga for all New Zealanders. Messages of support for the site and its ever-growing number of visitors attest to the esteem with which it’s viewed. Te Ara is a significant national project that has drawn on hundreds of people who wrote and edited entries, supplied images and multi-media content, and added their stories. In the coming months and years we want to ensure these communities are involved in Te Ara’s ongoing maintenance.

With a sizeable team still in our publishing group, including staff with experience working on Te Ara, regular updates to the site will continue to keep it relevant and current. We’ll also be able to work on it alongside other areas of work like Te Taiwhakaea Treaty Settlement Stories and our commemorations work: the WW100 programme, the 125th anniversary of universal suffrage in 2018, and the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing in 2019. All of this work touches the lives of many New Zealanders and it’s great to be able to place Te Ara at the centre of it.

It is a challenge, but it’s also a chance for us to step back and take stock of how we work across all our websites. It’s an exciting challenge to have and one that we hope Te Ara readers will enjoy and support.

Matthew Oliver and Neill Atkinson

Fond farewell

Nancy Swarbrick at the November 2013 launch of her book Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets

Nancy Swarbrick at the November 2013 launch of her book Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets

The best managers are those with a light touch; who trust, but know when to check in and offer gentle encouragement. Nancy Swarbrick, the departing senior editor of Te Ara, is one of these people. I have worked with Nancy since I started as a Te Ara writer in 2008 and she was my manager until 2014, when the first build of the website was completed. Since then, we have worked together updating Te Ara alongside Caren Wilton, Emily Tutaki and Melanie Lovell-Smith. Now that we are all moving on, it is time to pay tribute to Nancy’s 28 years in the public service.

As a historian, it is fitting that Nancy has helped to make history through her contribution to some of New Zealand’s most important public history projects of recent decades. After graduating with an MA in English from Waikato University, she worked for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust before joining the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1987. Bill Oliver was General Editor and the DNZB was housed within the Department of Internal Affairs. Nancy was then appointed as assistant editor, editing and research, by Claudia Orange (Bill Oliver’s successor) in 1989. In this position she was responsible for managing the workflow of the five English volumes of the DNZB, which were produced between 1990 and 2000. She also found the time to write five entries. All this prepared her well for the mammoth task that followed.

Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand began at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in 2002, with General Editor Jock Phillips at the helm. Nancy was Te Ara’s managing editor, overseeing the ‘sausage factory’, as one Te Ara writer called it, with consummate skill. With her trusty whiteboard alongside her at all times, Nancy tracked all 980-odd Te Ara entries from conception to publication, and wrote around 44 of them herself, including the monumental Waikato regional entry. Outside the office she managed to fit in an MA in Public History from Victoria University, for which she graduated with distinction in 2003, and wrote the well-received book Creature comforts: New Zealanders & their pets, published by Otago University Press in 2013.

As our ex-colleague Ross Somerville said to me, Nancy ‘is excellently well-read, knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, an excellent writer and editor’. She is formidably organised and calm under pressure, someone who makes things happen without fuss. Approachable, kind and supportive – the finest of managers.

I don’t think Te Ara could have done without her.

Beautiful people

Sunrise over Hikurangi, East Coast (click for image credit)

Sunrise over Hikurangi, East Coast (click for image credit)

I am very sad to be writing this farewell blog to all our loyal Te Ara users. Along with the other four staff who have been working on the Te Ara website content for the past year, my contract ends in a few days. We’ve been very busy over the past twelve months developing new processes and ways of working, and getting our heads around the multitude of jobs that have to be done to keep the site reliable, useful and engaging for the many people who refer to it each day. Among many other things, we have:

Completing the Peoples entries and various other entries in process, and undertaking the major, ongoing task of updating the 980-plus Te Ara entries (including the large number of science entries) will now be the job of the new Research and Publishing Group of Manatū Taonga. This team will be managing the site from 2 November, and I wish them well with that important responsibility.

The title of this blog, ‘Beautiful people’, comes from the hit song ‘Sensitive to a smile’ by Herbs, which features in our entry about the East Coast, written by Monty Soutar. The video was filmed by soon-to-be famous director Lee Tamahori and John Day on the coast in 1987, and, like the song, was a huge success at the time. Watch it, and you will understand why. It is one of my favourite resources on Te Ara, and to me it exemplifies what has been created through the site – a rich, nuanced and affectionate portrayal of this unique country and its peoples.

I would like to thank the many beautiful people I have been privileged to work with down the years, first during the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography project under the leadership of Bill Oliver and Claudia Orange, and then during the Te Ara project, until 2014 under the guidance of the inspirational Jock Phillips.  It has been my great good fortune to belong to two wonderful teams, and I will never forget the laughter, the arguments, the camaraderie and the sheer hard work. Out of all that came two taonga: the DNZB and Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. I hope they will be cherished and looked after as they deserve for years to come.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to an amazing, staunch group of women who not only helped to build Te Ara, but have done their best this past year, under very difficult circumstances, to put it on a secure footing for the future. Kerryn Pollock, Caren Wilton, Mel Lovell-Smith and Emily Tutaki, I salute you. May you find new paths, and be truly respected and rewarded for your great talents.

We all know that an online encyclopedia like Te Ara is never really finished – to remain relevant it must be constantly updated and refreshed. That will be the challenge for our successors, and you, the users, will judge whether or not the goal is achieved.