Ten years ago this week, I vividly remember walking into my office, looking at the blank wall ahead of me and then down to an empty sheet of paper, and thinking to myself: ‘What the heck do I do now? How do I begin work on the world’s first born-digital national encyclopedia?’
When I applied for the job it had seemed like a wonderful opportunity, but once I had to deliver, the prospect seemed more terrifying. At that stage the web itself was still fairly new; and, although we had started NZHistory in 1997 and digitised the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000, it was not at all clear how the web would move, or even whether it was just a temporary fad.
So what did I do? First, I realised I needed help. If anything was a collective enterprise, doing a national encyclopedia was. The most urgent need was some IT assistance. So, within a month or so Ross Somerville came on board to help plan the digital delivery. I also needed to call on the experience of others, so before long I had recruited an advisory committee chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and a Māori advisory committee, Te Ara Wānanga, chaired by Ranginui Walker.
Then we started to work on two major issues: structure and content.
The nature of the website experience
The central question was: what was the basic unit of production and what did it look like? With the great help of historian Bronwyn Dalley, we combed reference and historical websites around the world trying to decide what worked and what didn’t work.
Unsurprisingly, we decided that an entry covering one subject would work as the basic unit; but we realised it needed to be broken up to make the text alive on the screen. We decided to have a limit of about 500 words per screen, and deliver the story in what we called sub-entries. We also broke up the text even further with headings and quirky topic boxes.
We decided that if the web technology was really going to add value, so that we were not just delivering a ‘book online’, then we had to use as much visual and sound material – images, interactives, films, sound clips – as we could within the budget. I laid down a guide of one such resource for every 100 words.
And we decided that we had to layer the information, to allow younger users or those with English as a second language to benefit from the site. So we made a commitment to a ’short story’ (a condensed version aimed at a younger reading level) for each entry. Once these decisions were made, we then trialled the format on NZHistory and took it out to user groups to see their response.
The other big issue was the content. How did you possibly organise the whole of New Zealand society, history, natural history and culture into these things we called entries? Did we begin, like encyclopedias traditionally did, with the letter A and finish some years later at Z? That didn’t seem very interesting. Instead we decided to clump the entries around themes. This would mean that we could employ writers and specialists from particular disciplines at different stages of the project, and also we could go live in instalments with certain subjects virtually complete.
Exactly what those themes should be was an exhausting process with, much consultation. Once we had a draft list I then took the entries from the old 1966 encyclopedia, edited by A. H. McLintock, and distributed them among our themes, just to get some idea whether each theme would be about the same size. While doing this I began to realise what a wonderful work that 1966 encyclopedia was, and that it would be useful to have it on the site just so there was a complete encyclopedia for users while we were preparing our encyclopedia on the instalment plan.
So, how’s it gone?
Well, it is now 10 years on and the web is a very different beast. New fashions have emerged which we did not predict – within two years social media would become the buzz, and Te Ara never really adjusted satisfactorily to that revolution. But in other respects I still think that the decisions we made 10 years ago were robust ones. Eventually the different sections or themes will disappear, in favour of other ways of browsing the content, but they have served their purpose well. The structure and format of each page and entry still does its job. We have made some changes – brought the short story to the front as an introductory read, refined the presentation of image series and given the site a sparkling new design. Over the last few weeks we have been receiving more than 15,000 visitors a day, and that is, I think, an affirmation of all our work.
For me personally, seeing Te Ara develop has been the most exciting experience of my life; and as we celebrate a decade of the project, I would like to thank all of you who have made it happen - Te Ara staff, supporters in Manatū Taonga – the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, contributors, librarians, archivists and, above all, the many users who send in comments, corrections and suggestions for new entries. Editing Te Ara actually became a really easy job because everyone was so keen to help. You all believed in the project and went out of your way to assist. So, as we celebrate a decade, all of you take a collective bow.