Archive for the 'Behind the scenes at Te Ara' Category

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.

Bill Oliver, 1925–2015

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

It’s sad to record the passing on 16 September of William Hosking Oliver, one of the pioneers of the teaching of New Zealand history in New Zealand universities, and the founding editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (now part of Te Ara).

Bill was born in Feilding and attended school there and in Dannevirke. He was proud of his Cornish ancestors and his roots in middle New Zealand. He studied at Victoria University College in Wellington, where he came under the spell of History Professor Fred Wood. He went off to complete a doctorate at Oxford University (on British Millennialists) before returning to teach at Canterbury and Massey universities.
It was at Massey that Bill established the first course that focused on New Zealand history, and he published a pioneering history, The story of New Zealand (Faber and Faber), almost simultaneously with Keith Sinclair’s History of New Zealand
(Penguin). Sinclair’s book came to be reprinted many times, and Bill’s was not, possibly because of its more discursive and essayistic style, cast in elegant prose and avoiding the Great Men and Great Events school of historiography. It still reads beautifully.

Oliver and Sinclair were longtime colleagues and friends, both poets and essayists as well as historians of New Zealand. They mingled with other writers and artists in their youth, and fruitfully sparred with each other on DNZB committees.

In the early 1980s Bill Oliver took on the role of founding editor of a new dictionary of national biography for New Zealand. He was determined as ever to make this, usually the most nationalistic of historical monuments, as representative of the actual makeup of the country as possible. This was a difficult challenge, especially in the selection of biographies for inclusion in the first volume, which covered the years in which the islands were discovered by Europeans, the British colony founded and settlement begun. The historians and other interested parties whom Bill consulted and formed into working parties had definite views and firm ideas about who was to be ‘in’ and who was not. Bill’s democratic plan was to include many Māori and many more women than were usually encountered in such compilations. This didn’t leave as much room for the pale patriarchal people and many noses were put out of joint. Bill stuck to his principles and a unique and memorable collection of lives enriched New Zealand’s historiography.

Alongside this achievement was the publication of a parallel volume of Māori-language lives of Māori people. This bicultural initiative was another pioneering achievement, assisted and continued by Bill’s successor as general editor, Claudia Orange.

One of the distinguishing features of Bill’s editorship was his guiding hand in matters of structural editing and style. Staff were treated to Bill’s handwritten comments on their editing, in terms of the balance and structure of a life as well as in identifying detailed (in Bill’s hand, always ‘detailled’ – he never could spell that word) points of fact and nuances, drawing on his immense knowledge of New Zealand history and the primary sources of information. These comments were expressed in economic and graceful prose. (Bill’s editorial principles and practices have been outlined in a previous post to this blog).

Bill was awarded a CBE for this achievement, and the project was fortunate to have his ongoing interest and attention, as he continued to provide advice and detailled [sic!] commentary for all future volumes of the DNZB after his retirement.

I suspect that all who worked alongside Bill (not ‘for’ him – he seldom pulled rank) will count it among the most satisfying, stimulating and rewarding periods in their lives.

In recent years Bill’s activities have been compromised by ill health, though his mind and interest have remained active. Few people, and certainly not Bill himself, had anticipated he would live to such a ripe old age, but those who have had the pleasure of his company will cherish the memory of the gentle and wise man who was happy to discuss all manner of contemporary subjects, and also to share the details of a long and full life. He’d had to give up most of his ‘vices’ over the years, but his memories of them were animated and cheerful. Recently he told me about his time manpowered into the broadcasting service at the end of the Second World War, and chortled over the jazz records he ‘borrowed’ from the service and took home to enliven student parties. He’d been reading to me from Rachel Barrowman’s recent biography of Maurice Gee, enlivened by erudite and amusing commentary. I’m going to miss his quiet charm and wise conversation. Nice that he’s left an enduring legacy and a cohort of friends and colleagues to celebrate knowing him.

Remembering Tairongo Amoamo

Tairongo Amoamo shows Hutt Valley High School students Māori biographies (pic: Quintessential Images)

Tairongo Amoamo shows Hutt Valley High School students published Māori biographies (pic: Quintessential Images)

Last Saturday I had an unexpected reunion with some of my old colleagues from the Dictionary of New Zealand biography project, but the occasion was a sad one – the farewell for Tairongo Amoamo, who passed away on 8 July. From 1990 to 2000, Tairongo was Māori editor for the Dictionary, with responsibility for translating the entries on Māori subjects into te reo. He was a native speaker of the language, and his reo was, as Ranginui Walker said in his eulogy, ‘impeccable’. Tairongo was passionate about his work on the Māori volumes, known as Ngā tāngata taumata rau – the people of many peaks.  But he was much more than a translator – he was a generous teacher and friend to those of us who worked with him. Through him we were introduced to the important principles of tikanga and manners – imparted in a kindly, patient but very firm way!  Listening to him talk in te reo to Māori visitors in the office revealed to us that it was a living language of everyday life, as well as being a vehicle for poetry and history.  And he loved to recount the stories of the people whose lives we were recording – people like Tuakana Āporotanga, Te Pairi Tūterangi,  and of course Mokomoko. When he told these stories with such relish, they became incredibly vivid, and their ongoing deep significance for him and many others was evident. It was a lesson that in this country, history is not just about the past.

Tairongo knew that at the Dictionary, we were making history in more than one way. His lasting achievement is his contribution to Ngā tāngata taumata rau, which when complete was the largest Māori-language work to be published since the translation of the Bible in the 19th century. It was the model for subsequent translation of Māori entries in Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Haere rā Tairongo – your work will live on. Haere ki te kāinga i whakaritea e tō tātou Kaihanga mō tātou katoa.

Te ringa toihau nui

Basil at the Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards, 2012

Basil at the Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards, 2012

E hoa, e te ringa toihau nui o Te Ara, te kaihautū o te wāhanga Māori, tēnei te mihi nui, tēnei te mihi aroha hoki ki a koe

It is with great sadness that we record the departure to an exciting new venture of Basil Keane. In recent years Basil’s official title was ‘director of Māori digital projects at Manatū Taonga’, which reflected his wide-ranging creativity in digital publishing, but he first arrived at the ministry as editor Māori for Te Ara. Basil came to us from the Eastern Institute of Technology after Rangi McGarvey had established the mana of the editor Māori position, so there were very big shoes to fill. We were not at all certain that we would be able to do so. The interview panel was chaired by Ranginui Walker, and I remember that the moment Basil left the interview room, Ranginui turned to us and said, ‘There’s your man’.

Some of the things which impressed us all at the interview proved to be great indicators of the contribution Basil would make over the next 10 or so years. First, there was his huge excitement and forthright enthusiasm for the potential of Te Ara. He could see straight away the role it might play in the Māori community, and he dedicated much of his boundless energy to achieving this. Second, there was his intuitive understanding of, and creativity about, the possibilities of digital technology. No-one else among the community of Te Ara geeks was so quick to discover natty new apps or ingenious sites. Third, there was his deep knowledge of Māori history and culture generally. Ranginui became very excited about Basil’s interest in the Kotahitanga parliament and urged him to continue working in that area. So it was great to see Basil complete his thesis on Kotahitanga two years ago, with Manatū Taonga’s support. In the community of Māori historians, he was a real leader. One of Te Ara’s finest contributors, Paul Meredith, notes that Basil was ‘very much a thinker about Māori history.’

Once Basil took up the reins, he did a brilliant job. It was a complete privilege to work with him through the next nine themes of Te Ara – not forgetting the Places entries, where Basil gave every entry a really close look-over from a Māori perspective. He was also a great travel companion on our trips around Aotearoa to launch those entries, and it was amazing how many Wharehouse stores around the country he managed to find on these fleeting visits.

I really enjoyed working with Basil on those nine themes. He quickly won the confidence of Te Ara Wānanga (Te Ara’s Māori advisory committee), showed leadership in drawing up rough entry lists and then listened carefully to the changes and hints dropped by members of the Wānanga. When it came to choosing the authors, Basil’s knowledge of expertise and local sensitivities in the Māori world was irreplaceable, and when the draft entries came his judgements about their strengths and missing bits were always acute. When it came time for him to write entries himself, they were consistently clear, accurate, hugely well-informed and pitched at just the right level. Just look for example at his wonderful entries on Pounamu (his very first), Te hopu tuna, Kotahitanga, and Whāngai. In all he wrote 25 Te Ara stories – about as many words as a good book.

Basil was also a really clever and generous promoter of others’ work – indeed one of Te Ara’s most popular blog posts was his ‘A beginner’s guide to finding Matariki’, which was designed to promote Paul Meredith’s path-breaking story about Matariki. In all Basil penned over 30 posts on the Signposts blog – including some classics, such as ‘Pit bull on the menu’ and ‘Top 10 things we share with Australia’. He was consistently a passionate enthusiast for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and drew on all his considerable powers of diplomacy to respond to those who challenged the iwi identification of certain tīpuna.

Over time Basil took on a real leadership role within Manatū Taonga. He had a powerful vision for the different ways that web technology might be used to benefit knowledge about Māori subjects. He was a great supporter of, and he was generous and understanding in guiding us ignorant Pākehā about what was fitting for a Māori audience. Many in Manatū Taonga called on his wisdom about appropriate tikanga for welcomes, launches and any public occasion. I appreciated that Basil could be quite firm and clear about what was needed, but always made his point without rancour or a loud voice. We quickly learnt to listen and follow his advice.

Finally Basil’s humorous engagement at morning coffees, his forthright contributions to the Dom Post quiz, and his perverse and highly opinionated judgements about Hurricanes rugby, Black Caps cricket and Warriors rugby league will be remembered fondly.

What a loss for Manatū Taonga; but I hope Basil is as proud as we are of his massive achievement. The 150 stories about Māori subjects in Te Ara will be his legacy.