People like people, or at least that’s what our website traffic tells us. Since we added the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB) to Te Ara in late 2010, our biography pages have been viewed nearly 5 million times. What’s more, we have information about a lot of people.
To start with, there are over 3,000 biographies from the DNZB. As this brief background notes, this was no traditional biographical dictionary. The general editor, W. H. Oliver, ‘wanted to include people prominent in a regional, tribal, ethnic or occupational context, and set challenging targets for entries on women and Māori’.
Behind those 3,000 are many more names. There are over 1,000 people who were significant in New Zealand history but weren’t included in the Dictionary. People like Queen Victoria – important, yes, but not a New Zealander. We call these people ‘non-essay subjects’, and they provide connections between the people who are subjects of biographies. We also have a database of nearly 13,000 names, which was used for selecting the 3,000 biographies that appeared in the original print volumes of the Dictionary. Information in this database may be scant and incomplete, and in some cases it needs checking, but it’s a solid contribution of people who played some small part in our history.
So far I’ve talked only about people in relation to the Dictionary, but there are also many people on NZHistory, either as brief adaptations of Dictionary essays or as wholly new articles. Then there are the people throughout Te Ara, and the lists of suffragists and rolls of honour on NZHistory and on the Vietnam War and 28th Māori Battalion websites.
There are, in short, people everywhere.
We’re not currently making many connections among all these datasets. We provide some links between stories about the same person, and have connected NZHistory stories through keyword pages like this one for Rita Angus, but we’re yet to develop a system that makes it easy for us to connect people, and for readers to find all the information we hold about a person.
We’re hoping to change that very soon, and have started working on a project to create authority records about people. We’re beginning to build a definitive list of the people we know something about, and a system to connect mentions of those people on any of our websites. This will make it easier to see connections across our sites; it will allow our readers to follow the connections and get a richer story about each person and their relevance to our history and culture. What’s more, we’ll be able to share our list in a machine-readable form, so other websites can make connections between people on our sites and theirs, and so contribute to the opening up of government-held content.
We’re starting small, and will begin with people from the Dictionary and NZHistory, initially linking content on Te Ara and NZHistory. They’re our most heavily used and content-rich websites, so it makes most sense to connect them with each other and other websites in the cultural heritage world.
From a technical point of view we’ll be storing the information about people using the Schema.org ontology in an RDF triplestore database and publishing it to a simple stand-alone website with a page for each person. Each person in this sense becomes an entity about which we can make simple statements – their name, birth and death dates, occupation, where they were active, and so on – and record where they’re mentioned in our websites. That information can be re-used anywhere a person is mentioned, and can be harvested by other websites to make connections to their content. In this way, readers will – one day – be able to go from our biography of Rita Angus to a book plate by Rita Cook on the National Library’s website to all the information about Angus on Te Papa’s Collections Online.
From there the logical step for us is to look at other information that can easily translate to the idea of being an entity – for example, places. We’ve started thinking about that …
We’re not alone in looking at this, and we’re probably playing catch-up with other organisations, but in taking a few steps in this direction we hope to contribute something of what we know about New Zealanders back to the wider digital culture and heritage community.