New Zealand Biographies

Don’t look for your name in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography, because you won’t be there until you are dead for 5 years.

Famous and infamous people

By Roger Childs

Back in 1940 a two volume set of biographies came out including people it considered had distinguished themselves in politics, religion and the economy. The entries were largely male and non-Maori. It followed a pattern pioneered in Britain, Ireland, Australia and America.

In 1990 the now familiar Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB), was launched with historian Bill Oliver as its first editor. Volume 1 included 600 entries covering the period from 1769 to 1869.

By the year 2000 there were around 3000 people’s lives recorded in five printed volumes and editors Oliver, and later Claudia Orange, endeavoured to ensure that there was no ethnic, gender or regional bias. 1235 authors had been involved and their material had been carefully scrutinised by reference checker and sub-editors.

Unfortunately, with the publication of Volume 5 covering the period from 1941 to 1960 funding ran out.

Going online

Jock Phillips

New Zealand was one of the first countries in 2001 to set up a website. Images were added to  the biography texts and with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage emerging from Internal Affairs, Te Ara was launched with responsibility for the DNZB.

Up to 2015 over 1000 articles went up on Te Ara, but the DNZB remained unchanged apart for 15 entries added by Jock Phillips.

In 2015 Te Ara received additional staffing and two years later the DNZB came into sharp focus.

Rethinking the Dictionary

In March 2017 a full review was done and serious questions were asked.

Was the DNZB in demand? A definite “Yes” as there were 2000-3000 hits per day.

Kate Shepard is in the top ten.

Was it still needed in published form? Probably not, as there no significant demand for the printed volumes.

Which entries received the greatest hits? The top ten were: Whina Cooper, Apirana Ngata, Kate Sheppard, Te Rauparaha, Princess Te Puea, Hone Heke, Te Kooti, William Hobson, Rua Kenana and Hongi Hika.

The review panel concluded that there was big demand for quality online content produced by subject experts to a high professional standard.

The main competition online was Wikipedia, however the panel felt that the DNZB was far superior in providing reliable, thoroughly researched material.

Adapting to the digital environment

Two key decisions were made.

  1. In future the DNZB would be solely a digital product and there would be no more printed volumes
  2. Work needed to begin on updating old entries as well producing new ones.
Peter Blake: his time is coming

Twenty new biographies would be commissioned each year.

Deciding who would be suitable was not easy. In Australia they had a pattern of researching obituaries and this was followed in New Zealand as part of the research process.

It was agreed that people would only be eligible if they had been dead for 5 years.

Renewed activity

So staff got underway with commissioning new entries, and updating old ones. There was a realisation too that there were people who had previously been overlooked, and websites such as Papers Past were recognised as valuable sources for research.

Sir George Grey: a range of views

Furthermore, recent historiography had shown up deficiencies in how some famous figures from the past had been interpreted. For example there are currently different viewpoints on the part played in New Zealand’s history by people such as

  • William Colenso
  • George Grey
  • Donald McLean.

For the year 2018-19 there will be 25 new biographies and in this list there are/is scientists, sports people, pioneers in commerce, a weaver, publisher, viticulturalist, bishop, broadcaster, novelist, diplomat, lawyer, professor ….

Tim Shoebridge, who is coordinating the revival of the DNZB, is well aware that this is a catch-up phase. He and his team are conscious of the reality that there are high expectations from students to seniors.

Another important element of the revitalisation process is to improve navigation online and to make it easy for users to move between the DNZB and the NZ History and Te Ara sites.

Suggestions are welcome, and people can email him at


(This article was based on notes taken at a History talk given by Tim Shoebridge in early June.

The next Public History talk convened by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage at the National Library in Wellington is on Wednesday 4 July a 12.10pm. The topic is  ‘Researching kindergarten: the endeavours of women for the play of children’)












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