The long and the short of it

This is the text of a talk I gave at A Very Informal Lightning Series on Digital Culture, organised by members and friends of the National Digital Forum. It was a good evening (disrupted only by repeated fire alarm tests in the building), with a lot of crossover and agreement across all the talks. My talk’s original title was ‘The Long and the Short of it: a future for Te Ara and NZHistory’.


I have to start with a confession and that’s that I came up with the title for this talk in a hurry and before thinking about what I’d talk about. I’m quite happy with the first bit, ‘The long and the short of it’, but I’m not sure about the subtitle even with the rider that it’s only ‘a’ future. Instead I’ll talk about this: Some Things to Talk About When Thinking About the Future of Te Ara and NZHistory.

Long and short

Te Ara is the online encyclopedia of New Zealand – a landmark born digital encyclopedia that’s been drawn together over the last 10 years. NZHistory is its slightly older sibling, or perhaps rotten uncle. Together they’re some of the most heavily used websites in the cultural and heritage sector.

Someone asked me last week what the difference between them is. In reply I drew them a picture a bit like this one.

Te Ara and NZ History content

In some ways they’re very similar – they cover New Zealand’s culture and history in its many forms.

But Te Ara is incredibly broad. It covers the full range of New Zealand subjects, from politics, social history, Maori culture, natural history, creativity, and more.

NZHistory – as the name suggests – focuses more on history: political, cultural, and a lot of coverage of war history.

Typically Te Ara entries are highly structured and relatively short. NZHistory on the other hand is almost anarchic and has the freedom to cover subjects in more depth. It’s a gross generalisation but one that’s useful to point to the complementary nature of short and long content. Depending on our users level of interest it allows us to serve up the right amount of content for them.

That’s one thing to think about: short and long content is complementary.

Content development

I said it’s a generalisation – both sites have content that doesn’t conform to such an easy statement. One of the things that NZHistory does for example, are tiny but useful pieces of content that sit on top of the deep content and act as hooks to draw people into deeper content.


It’s something I think we need to do a lot more of, while bearing in mind that it’s probably a huge task – literally summarising all our content. But it has interesting spin-off uses. For one thing it’s more mobile friendly for users looking for a quick answer or fact. And as Virginia Gow pointed out, it’s also far more useful for sharing and posting to social media by us and our users.

At the other end of the scale we’ve got all these gaps in our long content. There’s a huge potential here for us to develop content that fills these gaps or work with other groups to do so. It could even be the content exists and we just need to look at mechanisms for connecting it up.

Nuggets and data

I heard the scientist Hamish Campbell talk recently about the ebook he released with Bridget Williams Books BWBText series. As books they’re short, but they’re decent length essays that Hamish Campbell felt gave him the space to develop an argument in a way that newspaper or magazine publishing doesn’t.

That’s a format I’d like to see explored on our websites – not so much ebooks but more indepth content that responds to contemporary issues and draws on the breadth of our content. That establishes a cycle between short an long content: short content provides a foundation to build arguments which in turn establish new facts that inform the foundation.

That’s the second thing: short and long content inform and develop each other.

A couple of other quickish things to mention…

Project calabash

Something I talked about at NDF last year was a small pilot project that we’re working on with Te Papa to create better links between Te Ara and Collections Online. We’re still working through it but at its simplest form it links images of Te Papa objects that appear on Te Ara to the record for the object on Collections Online and vice versa. Basically it means people can get more information about the object through a simple hyperlink.

Two calabashes

It’s a hardwired connection between two sites. Once we get it working with Te Papa we’ll extend it to other collections. At that point we start making connections not just between two sites but by association across the network – where our stories use objects and items from different collections, we effectively create a network of subject based links between collections.

That’s the third thing: stories link objects into a wider context.

Dynamic connections

We’re currently redesigning NZHistory. That’s how it started out anyway, but then our lead designer and NZHistory’s product manager got to talking behind our developers’ backs and decided to redevelop it at the same time.

Where they’re going with it is to add a new navigation that’s driven off keywords, with the keywords broken down into People, Places, Events and Subjects. We’re using the keywords to generate what we’re calling dynamic pages – effectively pulling together all the content from across NZHistory that has that keyword and the displaying it in the same sorts of content groupings.

David Lange on the new NZHistory

Here’s mockup based on a People keyword, so it’s got a hero image and story – the biography – as well as related media items, events, and articles. I think this is exciting, but it’s only the start – next we’ll look at pulling in Te Ara content and use DigitalNZ to pull in content from other websites.

At this point it really starts to become a model that the digital heritage sector can experiment with as well – pulling content from multiple sources that fits a particular interest. This is just a New Zealand history take on it, but the possibilities for combining content around different subjects are endless.

That’s my last thing: dynamic connections will unlock the digital heritage sector’s collective potential.

A future?

I’ve failed to present a future, but I think these ideas point in the right direction. I’ve drifted away from the original idea of the Long and the Short of it, but it’s content in its many forms that we do well and that we contribute to the sector.

Recognising our internal strengths and playing to them while seeing how and where we can fit into the wider sector – providing context, providing links – and collaborating with the sector to help all our users create their own stories and collections has to be something to which we should aspire.

Open letter to cultural collecting organisations

Last week I spent two days at the NDF conference in Wellington. This is the lightning talk I wish I’d thought to give.

I work on web projects at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.* We run some wonderful websites, sites like Te Ara, NZHistory, Vietnam War, 28th Maori Battalion, and others. They’re popular, especially the first two. Te Ara gets about a quarter of a million visits a month, NZHistory a bit under 200k. That’s not bad for government websites, in fact, it’s pretty bloody good.

There are a couple of really obvious things going on on our sites, and neither are unique. I won’t ask you to guess. The first…

1. Text

There’s a lot of it. It’s one of the main things our area of the Ministry does. We research, write and edit text, whether for books or the web. Text is something we’ve been doing since our origins in the historical branch of Department of Internal Affairs in the 1930s.

I’’ll come back to the second thing that’s happening soon, but first take a look at this:

It’s the Creative Commons licence from Te Ara. A similar one appears on NZHistory. It’s a complicated statement that attempts to say “you’re welcome to use the text – non-commercially – and some of the images”. Which leads me nicely along to the second thing happening on the site.

2. Images (etc)

Our sites use a ton of images, like the one above from Auckland City Libraries – Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero (Reference: NZ Map 2664), video and audio files, interactives and diagrams. Images are the biggest group. We own some of them, maybe 10%, maybe as little as 5%. The vast majority of them, and this goes for video and audio too, come from organizations like National Library, the Turnbull, Archives NZ, museums, galleries and other organizations up and down the country.

To get a sense of how many images we use from big collecting institutions, try a Google image search of Te Ara for Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Auckland War Memorial Museum, or the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Whats my point?

There was a lot of talk at NDF about the need for narrative around organizations’ collections, ways to connect the dots for users, as well as finding new ways to present collections, making interaction more about giving rather than expecting the user to ask for something. And that’s pretty much what we do – our text is the context for all the collection content that we re-use. Our content is context for that content.

Back to that creative commons license and what it’s effectively saying. As a user of our websites you can use our text for non-commercial purposes like research, study, mixing and mashing, etc. If you want to use it commercially, get in touch and we can talk. Of the images, where we own them you can use those as well. Our view is simple: New Zealand taxpayers funded the creation of this content and continue to fund the websites. It was created with the public good in mind, and sharing it widely contributes to that public good.

So what about the bulk of the images and other media files on the sites, can you use them too? No. They’re not ours and we can’t share them. You can use their captions – they’re ours – but sorry, not the pictures themselves.

The pitch

So here’s my pitch to the holders of our cultural collections: how can we work together to share our text and your images? How can we build on the narrative that Te Ara and NZHistory provide about your collections? How do we collaborate to make shared content and narratives available for re-use? And what could we do with that shared pool of content ourselves?

These seem like obvious questions to answer. Like our content, your collections are paid for and maintained by the taxpayers of New Zealand, and it’s on you to share and make this content available. Surely it would help your organization if you could easily find and re-use descriptions about your collection items? Or how about shared application like the beautiful Biblion iPad app from New York Public Library?

Like someone said at the conference, it’s just programming. This stuff should be easy. We’ve found the images, written about them, created a narrative, all we need now is permission and willingness.

* Full disclosure: as well as working at the Ministry, I’m also joining the NDF Board for 2012 and 2013. The views expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of the Ministry or the NDF Board.