The new face of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
In a small library at the Department of Culture and Heritage’s headquarters, veteran historian and writer Tim Shoebridge sits proudly next to a stack of well-kept books.
These are the first physical copies of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, containing the life stories of over 3,000 deceased New Zealanders who shaped the country’s culture and history.
Originally produced in five volumes printed between 1990 and 2000, the dictionary went online in 2001, catapulting it from its specialized readership into the public sphere.
Since 2017, Shoebridge and a small team of researchers have been working on releasing new entries in small batches, starting with Polynesian browser Tupaia. Since then, people the team has worked on include architect Ian Athfield, activist Tuiawa (Eva) Rickard, broadcaster Selwyn Toogood, sex worker and transgender personality Carmen Rupe, diver and aquarium entrepreneur Kelly Tarlton and photographer Marti Friedlander.
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“It’s both exciting and intimidating,” says Shoebridge.
Shoebridge was in high school in the 1990s when he first became interested in printed dictionaries. The self-proclaimed history nerd regularly used copies in his school library while writing essays, and he asked his parents to buy him volume one as a fifth-grade graduation present. “They fascinated me,” he says.
He eventually discovered that the first volume contained entries on three of his own ancestors, Thomas Buddle, and Charles and Sarah Barraud.
Now sold out, the digital space has offered richer entries and is freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. In addition, the biographies are accompanied by photos, videos and audio. It also means that they can be updated easily and can work longer.
In 2010 the dictionary was merged with Te Ara, New Zealand’s online encyclopaedia. Collectively, they constitute the most comprehensive reference work covering all aspects of Kiwi life and society, and contain the largest body of te reo Māori content available anywhere. (The five volumes printed in English produced between 1990 and 2000 were accompanied by volumes containing the 500 entries relating to Maori subjects in te reo Maori).
While Shoebridge leads the work on the dictionary alone these days, he says the entries are the product of years of work by hundreds of people. “Those of us lucky enough to work on it today are acutely aware of our responsibility to maintain the high standards of those who started them.”
How it works?
Entries are written by subject matter experts, specialists or commissioned professional writers before being checked and edited by a team of ministry researchers.
The team tries to commission entries that shed light on different aspects of society and how it works, rather than producing a list of saints and heroes.
Most of the time, that means movers and shakers from a wide variety of fields. But other entries from lesser-known people are commissioned if their lives are thought to tell readers something interesting about their time. They don’t have to be people the public admires.
“The lives of people like anti-Semitic activist Arthur Field, brothel owner Flora McKenzie or race relations activist Hilda Phillips tell us as much about their society as about people we might find more admirable,” says Shoebridge.
Others could be chosen to help ensure a balance between individuals across society.
Selections are made by a committee that meets annually, based on the advice of experts in the field. Only deceased persons have entries, but the living may be nominated for future consideration.
The print volumes covered people who rose to prominence before 1960 and died before the late 1990s, so Shoebridge’s main focus is now on the post-1960 period, but entries are sometimes published at from earlier times.
Up to 20 entries are published each year – sometimes grouped by a particular theme, sometimes just an interesting mix of people.
Its most obvious competitor is the Internet biographical source Wikipedia, which features biographies of varying lengths on hundreds of living and dead New Zealanders.
But unlike Wikipedia, which relies on anonymous volunteer contributors, the dictionary relies on specific experts whose work is rigorously vetted. Entries are published with a named author to ensure accountability and accuracy, while Shoebridge oversees a comprehensive and documented account of subjects’ lives, taking into account the era in which the person lived.
“Both models have their pros and cons, but I think there will always be a place for the authoritative texts we produce,” says Shoebridge.
Over the next few months, two more groups of entries will be released. The first is about kiwifruit and the natural environment and features Don Merton who helped save the blackbird and kākāpō from extinction, kiwifruit industry pioneer Roly Earp, mountaineer and conservationist Mavis Davidson , forest administrator Lindsay Poole, botanist Joan Dingley and illegal fish farmer and polluter Stewart Smith.
After that, two sets of “storytellers” are released – people who have made significant contributions to national dialogues and debates. These include Footrot Flats creator Murray Ball, novelist and broadcast administrator Ian Cross, Otago poet Ruth Dallas, broadcaster Paul Holmes, academic and commentator Ranginui Walker, and editor of Women’s Weekly Jean Wishart.
Holmes’ entry was particularly exciting working with the TVNZ-RNZ merger on the horizon, Shoebridge said.
“It’s only been about 25 years, but a lot has changed since the heyday of Holmes, when most people still listened to the evening news on TV and broadcasters like Holmes were really influential. It’s easy to d forget how central it was to the public debates of that time. We no longer all look at the same thing and people get information from everywhere.