Do not be too outraged by the title. I would hate to encourage any of my fellow countrymen to depart this mortal coil. But I would like to see more lives of New Zealanders, now dead, recorded in our Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB).
What inspires this blog is that I recently returned from a fascinating conference on national biographies hosted by the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) in Canberra. There were many challenging issues discussed:
- How to increase the representation of women and indigenous people in national biographical dictionaries; and at the opening of the conference Judge Michael Kirby made a passionate plea for better representation of gay and trans-gender people. Where such people were already in dictionaries, he suggested, their gay credentials should be openly discussed, not politely hidden.
- How often essays should be revised as new perspectives emerge and new evidence is uncovered.
- How to exploit the digital revolution by ensuring that web-based biographies are richly linked to other databases and information such as the marvellous Australian resource Trove.
- How far national dictionaries should primarily record notable people, and how far little known but ‘representative’ people should find a place. Do we need mothers, owners of corner dairies, alpaca farmers in our dictionaries?
- How to compete with Wikipedia given that the popular use of Wikipedia biographies is far greater than those in dictionaries of national biography despite the fact that they are hugely inferior in quality and accuracy. Some suggested that the only response was to load all the ‘official’ biographies onto Wikipedia.
- How to incorporate social media into biographical sites.
- How to fund these works of reference and scholarship. Some such as the UK’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) and the American National Biography have placed their works behind a paywall. Others such as the ADB remain committed to free and open access.
- How to use the rich data in such dictionaries to generate broader conclusions about society and culture.
- How in preparing biographies does one deal with family sensitivities? Melanie Nolan, General Editor of the ADB, came up with the concept of ‘compassionate truth’.
- How to define ‘national’ in a dictionary of ‘national biography’. Is it confined to those born in the country, or those who lived for long periods in the country, or simply people who had a substantial impact on the country though they may have spent little time there? James Cook, despite spending only about a year in New Zealand, appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Germaine Greer will find a place in the Australian one, despite having lived all her adult life in the UK, and she will also have a place in the UK dictionary. Sir David Cannadine, General Editor of the ODNB, suggested that it was time to go beyond national borders and develop projects of world biography, and Barry Jones gave an engaging discussion on how he went about doing his own version of such a world dictionary.
What emerged powerfully for me from the discussion was that the creation of a national biography remains a very live issue. At least within the Anglophone world there is an ongoing process of writing new biographies and an exciting investigation of new ways of publishing and promoting biographies — everywhere in the Anglophone world that is except in New Zealand. We heard about developments in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, the United States. In every case these counties already had major dictionaries of national biography; but they all realised that the task does not stop. Important people continue to die and it is crucial that their lives are presented in a scholarly way. The DNZB had a huge reputation among the practitioners of the biographical art at this conference; and they were enthusiastic about the path-breaking experiment of including biographies within a national digital encyclopedia as we have done with Te Ara. But they were staggered and appalled that there was no on-going preparation of new biographies. I felt deeply ashamed.
The DNZB at present covers comprehensively those significant dead New Zealanders who flourished up to 1960. The last volume published in 2000 included about 600 Kiwis who flourished in the years 1940-1960. The project was suspended in 2000 because at that stage there were not enough significant people who had died and who had flourished in the next 20 years 1960-1980. But now in 2016 we are as long from 1980 as those preparing the previous volume were from 1960. To retain the scale of the previous volumes, work should begin on another 600 biographies for the 1960s and 1970s. So far all that has been done is 15 biographies of the most notable figures, and this work stopped in 2012. Think of some of the notable New Zealanders who are now dead but lack comprehensive accounts of their contribution. Just in the cultural sector alone there are Michael King, Ralph Hotere, Billie T. James, Judith Binney, and Bill Oliver, the original editor of the DNZB. In the United Kingdom and Australia they have now changed the basis of selection from period of flourishing to date of death. The DNB is just completing biographies of those who died in 2012. The Australian project is writing biographies of those who died in the 1990s. It is surely time that we looked at these models and followed suit.
National encyclopedias and national dictionaries of biography are not once-only projects, that can be left to wither and die. They are national taonga, like a national museum, a national library or a national census. They provide essential information for a civilised society. They have their value precisely because they are kept up to date and include the biographies of all significant New Zealanders, not just those who lived before 1960.
I hope when the next such international conference on biographies is held (and there were already plans for this), the unfortunate New Zealander who attends does not have to hang his or her head in shame.