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

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 NZHistory.net.nz, 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.

In search of ‘Auntie Naughty’

Poster advertising Mrs W. H. Foley, 1858 (pic: Canterbury Museum, Canterbury Pilgrims and Early Settlers' Association Collection)

Poster advertising Mrs W. H. Foley, 1858 (pic: Canterbury Museum, Canterbury Pilgrims and Early Settlers' Association Collection)

In August last year I received an intriguing email from Ernest Huggins, a retired school teacher from London, Ontario. He had just come across our Dictionary of New Zealand biography entry on Mrs W. H. Foley, one of the varied band of entertainers who travelled round the country in the 19th century, bringing song, dance, poetry and spectacle into the lives of ordinary New Zealanders. Mrs Foley was a much-fêted actress, but somewhat elusive – when her biography was first published in 1990 we knew only her stage name, and had no details of where she was born, her early life or what happened to her after she apparently faded from the scene in 1867. That was about to change. Mrs Foley, Ernest told me, was his great-great-aunt, and his cousin, Zoe Cant, had details that could fill in some of the gaps: ‘She has quite a file on Mrs Foley, aka “Auntie Naughty” and I am sure would be delighted to share it with you.’

Indeed Zoe had a wealth of information on Mrs Foley. For starters, she knew her original name – Catherine Huggins – and had discovered that she was born into a family of actors in Lincolnshire, England around 1821. In 1843 Catherine Huggins gave birth to a son, Charles, and she married his father, Daniel Caparn, two years later. The family emigrated to Tasmania in 1847. Catherine ran a dress shop in Hobart for a while before she and Daniel separated. She went on her own to San Francisco; Daniel ended up in Honolulu, where he died in 1851.  That same year, Catherine married William Henry Foley, ‘a charismatic clown, circus proprietor and theatrical entrepreneur’ in Sacramento. In 1855 they arrived in New Zealand with their circus, and Mrs Foley soon branched into acting. This was the point at which our original biography had started.

Realising that major amendments and additions would be needed, I contacted the author of the DNZB biography, Peter Downes. It turned out that, with the assistance of Catherine Bishop, a PhD student, and Ian Harding, another family historian, Peter had found out even more information about the feisty Mrs W. H. Foley. After the birth of a daughter, the Foleys had parted company in 1857, and some time later Catherine took up with her company’s new leading man, Vernon Webster, who confusingly also went by the name Lowten Lowten. In 1867 Catherine and Lowten embarked on an unsuccessful tour to Chile, followed by a period in England. In 1882 they married (bigamously, as William Foley was still alive), and the following year came back to New Zealand. They made a brief return to the stage, then retired to Napier to run a hotel. Catherine died there in 1887, and is buried in the Napier cemetery. Her gravestone gives no clue that she was once the celebrated Mrs W. H. Foley.

Peter’s revised version of the entry is now up on the site and makes a fascinating read. The discovery of all this rich new information is the result of some great collaborative detective work, made more impressive because of the many names Mrs Foley went by during her lifetime. Mrs W. H. Foley, aka Catherine Huggins, aka Catherine Caparn, aka Lucy Catherine Foley, aka Lucy Kate Lowten and Mrs Lowten Lowten, enjoyed her finest hours in New Zealand. It seems fitting that her bones now lie in New Zealand soil.

There is one more mystery I want to solve: what did she look like? If you have or know of the existence of a portrait of Mrs W. H. Foley that we could attach to her biography, I would love to hear from you!

Birds, birds, birds

White tern chick (pic: Department of Conservation, photo by Don Merton (10030637))

White tern chick (pic: Department of Conservation, photo by Don Merton (10030637))

A-well-a, everybody’s heard about the bird
Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word …
*

Whether you like Big Bird or little birds, early birds who get the worm, or birds who flock together, there is bound to be something in Te Ara to interest you. (Well, maybe not Big Bird, we only have one mention of Sesame Street). Most of our bird entries were published in 2005–7, however, so we’ve recently been starting to update them.

Some changes in the bird world since we did these entries include the discovery of the New Zealand storm petrel breeding on Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island and the removal of Canada geese from the game birds schedule of the Wildlife Act. It has also recently been discovered that kiwi are most closely related to the extinct elephant bird from Madagascar, and that the closest living relative of moa is the small South American tinamou, which can fly!

One of the great things about working on Te Ara is the wide range of subjects that I get to research. However, the jump from painters, potters and poets to penguins, pūkeko and prions has meant a bit of a stretch in the old brain department. Luckily, we’ve had Colin Miskelly (seen here with a fluttering shearwater chick), ornithologist, curator at Te Papa and editor of New Zealand Birds Online, to review these entries and patiently answer our questions about nominate subspecies and the genetic distance between moa and kiwi.

As well as updates to the text, our designers have been hard at work re-sizing all the images and video, and moving layered maps like this albatross one from Flash into HTML. This might not look immediately different on your PC screen, but it does mean that it is now usable on my phone (and hopefully yours!).

Another new function is that some of our tables are now sortable, like this one listing the birds that migrate to New Zealand – you can sort it alphabetically by common name or species name.

The bill of a whio or blue duck (pic: Nature's Pic Images, photograph by Rob Suisted)

The bill of a whio or blue duck (pic: Nature's Pic Images, photograph by Rob Suisted)

We’ve also added some new photographs, such as this fascinating one of the underside of a whio’s bill (above), supplied by Rob Suisted of Nature’s Pics, and this amazing one of a long-tailed cuckoo being fed by its much smaller whitehead parent. You can read about how photographer Adam Clarke got this image on the Te Papa blog.

So this is just a taster of some of the work we’ve been doing recently. We’ll have more images and some lovely new video still to come, as well as some interactive graphs, so do keep looking!

* A bit more trivia – the quote at the top comes from the Trashmen’s 1963 hit song ‘Surfin’ bird. When I was writing this blog, I kept singing the Bluebird chips song from their early-1990s advert, which turned out to be an adaptation of ‘Surfin’ bird’. The Trashmen apparently created their song from two songs by 1960s American doo-wop band the Rivingtons, ‘Papa-oom-mow-mow’ and ‘The bird’s the word’. Blog writing occasionally takes you down some strange paths.

People like people

People, people everywhere (pic: South Canterbury Museum)

People, people everywhere (pic: South Canterbury Museum)

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.

Rural towns and numbers

Ōhura: a quiet township in 2011 (image: Waikato Times)

Ōhura: a quiet township in 2011 (image: Waikato Times)

Updating Te Ara’s regional entries can be a sobering exercise when one’s gaze is fixed on rural New Zealand. In contrast to the inexorable population increase of the big cities and some other main centres, many rural towns are losing people year in, year out.

Urbanisation is not a new trend – more New Zealanders have been urban dwellers from the early 20th century. The rural population has hovered around 500,000 ever since. For the most part though, rural towns held their own until the late 1960s when, in the wake of Britain joining the European Economic Community, agricultural prices stagnated and trading conditions became unfavourable. Young rural people flocked to the cities for work and remained there. Rural life got even tougher in the 1980s after the government removed farm subsidies.

Te Ara’s entry on the King Country region exemplifies these macro-trends. The area’s population peaked in 1961 and has fallen ever since. The new 2013 population figures we’ve added to the entry show a continuation of this trend – the region lost 33% of its population between 1961 and 2013. The populations of Taumarunui and Te Kūiti have fallen, while Ōtorohanga, which is much closer to a big city (Hamilton), has remained stagnant since the 1980s. Places off the beaten track and historically reliant on one industry, like the old mining town of Ōhura, are extreme examples – its 2013 population was 129, an 80% drop from 1961.

It would be interesting to hear from people who make their lives in these places. It’s easy to allow a sense of doom and gloom to permeate when looking at numbers alone, but situations are always nuanced. Award-winning photographer Tony Carter visited Ōhura time and time again in the last two years to photograph its people. He recognised that life was hard and but noted that ‘most people [were] proud of who they are. I felt the people there were quite creative in their own way and happy with their own company’.