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.

10 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Helen || October 27th, 2015

    A well-deserved tribute to an amazing public historian and project manager extraordinaire. I will never forget the way she used that whiteboard to track where every entry was at - a simple and lo-fi method, but so effective!

    Nancy, it was an honour and a pleasure working with you. All the very best to you Nancy for the next stage of your career!

  2. Comment made by Simon Nathan || October 27th, 2015

    I look back on my days working for Te Ara with great affection. It was an inspiring project, and the whole team was working on something they believed in. Sometimes we struggled with difficult issues, including grumpy authors and conflicting information, and I quickly realised that Nancy was the first port of call for advice. Her thoughtful and sympathetic opinions defused some difficult situations, and she was a wonderful role model. Kerryn’s words are just right - Nancy was the finest of managers, and she played a major role in the success of both the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and Te Ara.

  3. Comment made by Jock Phillips || October 27th, 2015

    I heartily endorse Kerryn’s fine words. Te Ara could never have operated without Nancy’s brilliant management. I was happy enough to front the project, but you always need someone who actually makes things happen. It was our huge good fortune to have someone with Nancy’s tact, intelligence and understanding of human beings to carry out that role. She was also a very fine writer. It makes me very sad that she will no longer be at the helm of the project. Thank you Nancy for your years of professional dedication.

  4. Comment made by Caren Wilton || October 27th, 2015

    Thanks Nancy for being a great colleague, ever calm, reasonable and patient, as well as tremendously perceptive and sharp. You also conceal an evil sense of humour beneath that ladylike exterior - excellent tweets today. I will miss working with you! Thank you for your great contribution to the twin taonga of Te Ara and the Dictionary of NZ Biography. Hard to believe the short-sightedness of management who would just let you go. All the very best for wonderful new ventures.

  5. Comment made by Janine Faulknor || October 27th, 2015

    If Te Ara was a sausage factory, it’s thanks to Nancy that the line kept moving smoothly and never broke down in well over a decade of production. As well as efficiently managing all her Te Ara work, she inspired us to add new content to the Dictionary of Biography and had the largely thankless task of dealing with its corrigenda. This was done with total commitment and good humour.
    I will always be grateful for the experience of working with Nancy, and the equally talented and dedicated team regrettably leaving Te Ara this week - Caren, Mel, Emily and Kerryn - and all my former Te Ara colleagues.
    Your next projects will be lucky to have you.

  6. Comment made by Ross Somerville || October 27th, 2015

    A lovely and fitting tribute, thanks, Kerryn. I was so fortunate to be Nancy’s colleague at the DNZB and at Te Ara for 26 of those years. If it was a sausage factory, they were gourmet sausages. And adding spice, Nancy’s calm, even demure, demeanour conceals a wicked and at times even subversive sense of humour which has helped get us all through some difficult moments without ever compromising the quality and consistency of the finished product. Nancy, I salute you!

  7. Comment made by Nancy || October 28th, 2015

    Thank you so much, Kerryn, for your very generous blog, and esteemed colleagues, for your lovely comments - I am truly overwhelmed!

  8. Comment made by Angela Mitchell || October 28th, 2015

    A beautiful tribute to a beautiful person, a shinnimg light for Te Ara and the DNZB. You’re presence and wisdom at the helm will be greatly missed, your contribution forever woven within its fabric. A koha of aroha. Thank you Nancy for a brilliant job and outstanding service, and to Caren, Kerryn, Em and Mel too. The significance of your contributions over many years (60+ combined) and recent loss are beyond words and reasoning. May the future hold all yous deserve. Ma te Atua e tiaki mo ake tonu atu.

  9. Comment made by Alison Parr || October 28th, 2015

    Nancy is one of those people whose quiet and unassuming manner belies their depth and skills. Her contribution over many years to this country’s cultural life, as a writer and editor, is hugely significant. I will miss Nancy as a colleague and I join with all who wish her the very best. She so deserves it.

  10. Comment made by Mark Derby || October 29th, 2015

    Nancy was my manager for several very happy years at Te Ara, and I’ve never had a better one. Her own historical writing was a fine standard to model and aspire to - precise, clear, thorough, vivid. I remember special occasions when she brought cake made with her homegrown rhubarb - a valuable colleague indeed. So long, Nancy, and thanks for your kindness, generosity, and (when called upon) your forbearance.

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