The New Zealand government first became involved in the preparation of reference works for the 1940 centennial. The centennial branch of the Department of Internal Affairs prepared a 30-part pictorial monthly, Making New Zealand; a series of 11 books on aspects of the country’s history; Guy Scholefield’s Dictionary of New Zealand biography; and a never-completed historical atlas. In 1956 approval was given for an encyclopedia, and from 1959 to 1966 parliamentary historian Alexander McLintock edited the three-volume Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.
The publishing history of the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand suggests that the profit motive was never a primary concern. All 31,000 copies sold in three months, at £7 10s. a set (more than $280 in 2014 terms). However, the publisher, the Government Printer, decided to leave it at that and the volumes were never reprinted.
In 1983 former chief historian Ian Wards prepared a feasibility study for a new four-volume New Zealand encyclopedia to be prepared over six years and published by the Government Printing Office at a retail cost of $240 a set. The proposal was not approved.
However, two further reference projects did proceed in the Department of Internal Affairs – the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (1983–2000), which produced five volumes of more than 3,000 biographies (with Māori biographies also published in Māori), and the New Zealand historical atlas (1989–97), which surveyed New Zealand history through maps and graphics.
In 1990 Minister of Internal Affairs Michael Bassett approved a Lottery Board grant of $200,000 to the Historical Branch of the department to begin work on a new encyclopedia. Given the heavy involvement of many scholars in the dictionary and atlas projects, chief historian Jock Phillips decided that the time was not right to work on a new encyclopedia. Instead the funds were used to prepare Women together, a dictionary of women’s organisations for the 1993 women’s suffrage centennial.
With the dictionary and historical atlas projects ending, scholarly resources were available for a new encyclopedia. Publishers, especially David Bateman, were keen. So in 1998 the Historical Branch made a budget bid for a new, three-volume, 1.5-million-word printed encyclopedia, using the money allocated in the baseline for the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB). This would be prepared over seven years. The bid was rejected. A secondary bid was also rejected for a digital encyclopedia of New Zealand, involving the digitisation of the historical atlas, the Dictionary of New Zealand biography and some additional history essays, to be prepared over three years.
Click Suite designed the DNZB website, and came up with a bright orange theme. It was insisted that this choice had nothing to do with the general editor of the dictionary, Claudia Orange.
In 1999 the Heritage Group of the Department of Internal Affairs launched NZHistory, a website devoted to New Zealand history. Its success suggested the possibility of an online encyclopedia. At the same time funding was obtained via the New Zealand Historical Association for a website of the DNZB as a millennium project. It was launched in 2002 as www.dnzb.govt.nz.
In July 2000 the Heritage Group joined the (renamed) Ministry for Culture and Heritage, with Prime Minister Helen Clark as minister. In February of that year a three-volume encyclopedia over seven years had been proposed, initially to be prepared on the internet in themes. This proposal too was rejected.
Judith Tizard as associate minister requested further work on the proposal. The digital aspects were advanced, with an emphasis on progressive publication on the web, much multimedia content, user involvement and cooperation with the major libraries, archives and museums. In late 2000 a new budget bid was submitted. The proposal was for six themes, to be prepared two at a time over periods of two-and-a-half years, with the total time to be eight years. An A–Z print publication of 2 million words would be produced at the end. A team of three researchers/writers, one image researcher and two people to work on Māori content was proposed.
Tizard briefed Paul Swain (minister of communications and information technology), and arranged a briefing with Michael Cullen as minister of finance. A presentation outlining a proposed entry on sealing was prepared. At the end of the meeting the minister indicated his support. $1.283 million a year for eight years was approved in the budget of May 2001, with funding beginning in 2002, to allow a year’s planning.