*Starred Review* This classic of British collective biography, called "an undertaking of exceptional magnitude" by Sidney Lee, its second editor, was first published between 1885 and 1900. Ten-year supplements were issued through the 1980s, and five-year supplements through the 1990s. Half the original set was written by only 34 contributors. The supplements were written by a wider range of people, often based on "personal acquaintance." The original set gave women short shrift, along with people in trade and commerce, and Victorian sensibilities meant that certain topics were taboo.
To be included among the 50,000 entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), subjects must have died by the end of 2000. No one was dropped, but 70 percent of the old essays (all those on prime ministers, for instance) were replaced, and the rest were revised. More than 16,000 entries treat people who were not included in the original DNB. The scope spans 2,400 years and includes mythical figures like Robin Hood and Piltdown Man. Some people are treated in group entries. Ten percent of the entries are for women. All traces of Victorian propriety are gone: now Oscar Wilde is described as homosexual, and artist Eric Gill's unorthodox sex life is described in detail. As in the original set, the writing is clear and often witty. The ODNB is aimed at the general reader, as well as the scholar, and contains many figures from popular culture: Barbara Cartland, Benny Hill, and Sid Vicious, for example.
What does national in the title mean? The set includes those who were born or died in Britain (including Ireland), as well as people "noteworthy in the history of the British Isles, and their overseas connections." This net is cast in the broadest possible way. Many people from the former British Empire, such as Malawi's president Hastings Banda and Australian novelist Patrick White, are included. There appear to be some inconsistencies in coverage: American Jimi Hendrix is here (because he died in Britain) but not Jamaican Bob Marley. Coverage of 500 people from colonial America is a useful addition, and it is interesting to see them described from a British point of view.
Each entry begins with birth and death dates and a tag describing what the person was known for (e.g., "cotton spinner," "cricketer," or a marquess who is simply labeled "wastrel"). While the average biography is about 1,000 words long, some entries are as long as 37,000 words. Entries conclude with a section called "References," which contains often-extensive bibliographies (called "Sources"), a list of archives holding the subject's papers, sources of likenesses, and, sometimes, "wealth at death." Ten thousand entries are illustrated with portraits: in the print set they are all in black and white, but online some are in color.
The print set has no list of entries nor any indexes, except a volume that lists all the contributors with a list of the entries they wrote. No institutional affiliations are given for contributors, more than 1,000 of whom are from the U.S.
Researchers looking for biographies by anything other than personal name will need to use the online version, with its powerful searching capabilities. In addition to a Quick Search by name or full-text keyword, there are three basic ways to find information online: Browse, Themes, and Search. Browse lets the user scan the entries alphabetically by name or by year of birth or death. Themes Search offers two features. Ready Reference has lists of prime ministers, archbishops of Canterbury, Nobel Prize winners, Olympic title holders, and others. Feature essays focus on topics such as medical biography and Disraeli's 2004 bicentenary.
The Search function is extremely sophisticated, with five ways to search: People, Full Text, References, Contributors, and Images. Wild cards can be used in most fields. People Search can be modified by sex, religion, field of interest, dates, places, and the presence of an image in the entry. One can find all the Jewish women in the ODNB or all the men who lived in the nineteenth century whose field of interest was travel and exploration in Africa. The Fields of Interest filter has 25 broad categories, from Agriculture to Travel and Exploration, which can then be divided into subfields and sub-subfields. The full list is so long that it can be slow to load.
Full Text Search uses Boolean limiters and can be limited to a particular part of entries, such as place or organization names. In References Search, one can search Sources, Archives, Likenesses, and Wealth at Death. Using Contributors Search results in a list of all entries by an individual, just as in the print set. Images can be searched by artist, dates, location, and credit.
In a results list, each entry name is followed by birth and death dates, the descriptive tag, and an icon if there is a portrait. Within an entry, it is possible to highlight any word or phrase and do a quick search in the whole database. Long entries have clickable lists of subheads. There are links to entries in the original DNB and entries in American National Biography (Oxford, 2000), assuming the institution subscribes to ANB Online.
The online context-sensitive help is useful, but most users will need some direction to take advantage of all the database's features. According to Oxford, the online version will be updated three times per year, and the print set "periodically."
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is fascinating reading and will prove useful to researchers in many disciplines. The online version provides extremely powerful tools for searching. The ODNB is an important purchase for most academic libraries and very large public libraries. Libraries that can only afford one version of this mammoth compilation should consider subscribing to the online one. Sandy Whiteley
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The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is fascinating reading and will prove useful to researchers in many disciplines. The online version provides extremely powerful tools for searching. The ODNB is an important purchase for most academic libraries and large public libraries.--Booklist Top of the List 2005!
"The benefits for researchers, students, and those generally interested in the history and culture of the English-speaking world are manifest....It is hard to imagine any library with online resources documenting English history, literature, language, and culture not wanting to acquire this work. Its breath, depth, and flexibility make it very much the peer of its distinguished Oxford cousin, the OED Online." -- College & Research Libraries News
"This will be the prestige acquisition of any library, and the ultimate listing in any bibliography. When it comes to hefty projects, Oxford is the uncontested winner." --Richmond Times Dispatch
"The greatest innovation in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is its online edition....With the ODNB, sophisticated internet-based publishing has definitively entered the mainstream. This is a resources you can use and enjoy, not just experiment with."--The New Criterion
"It will surely be one of the great publishing achievements of this century....The editors of this entirely new edition have retained the best features of the original, and they've accomplished the extraordinary: their work, on nearly every level, outshines it predecessor....A publisher responsible for this tour de force and the Oxford English Dictionary
is doing God's work."--The Atlantic Monthly
"It's nice to feel thrilled again about a new electronic product -- I'd almost forgotten the frisson of excitement when something really hot hits the market. That the DNB
is hot is an understatement....The amount of information is staggering, and the quality is superb....Researchers at all levels will be well served by this file, and librarians will be utterly beguiled... One of the neatest features here (and it nicely illustrates how well OUP "gets it" when it comes to how online research is done) is the online citing....A perfect ten
....Resoundingly recommended for all libraries and individual researchers."--Library Journal
"The publishing achievement of the year -- maybe of the decade. This is a work which makes superlatives superfluous."--The New York Times
"The fall reference publication with by far the most muscle"--Booklist
"The printed pantheon of Britons great and small, and of those who influenced them."--The Los Angeles Times
"There is a fascination and scholarship in equal measure to be found on every single page of this extraordinary endeavour....The Oxford DNB
brings the figures of our national story into sharp focus, brilliantly illuminating the darkest corners of our remarkable past."--Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything
"Local and family historians throughout the land will turn to the Oxford DNB
as the first source of information about fellow parishioners or ancestors who achieved national fame."--David Hey, Emeritus Professor of Local and Family History, The University of Sheffield
"An essential research tool for scholars working not only on the cultural, political, literary and artistic history of Britain but also on any aspect of the British contribution to European and world history."--Jill Kray, Librarian, Warburg Institute, London
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