Database of the month: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


 Leslie and Virginia Stephen  (Source: commons

Leslie Stephen, pictured here with his daughter, the novelist Virginia Woolf, was the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography – one of the great Victorian  projects. We are grateful to him for having helped create a work which has informed both general reader and scholar for over a hundred years.

It was published in 1885 and quickly became the standard reference work of notable figures from British history. The second edition, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was published in 2004 and online. In two previous posts I have written about the kind of material that can be found in this work and cannot recommend it highly enough. On Wednesday June 17th  we held a Database of the Month workshop on the ONDB in the Library. This work is invaluable for scholars of history and of English literature but since it seems very easy to consult you may wonder why you need to be instructed in its use.  It is in fact a sophisticated electronic resource which allows many kinds of searches. For those of you who were not able to get to the session, the PowerPoint presentation  and quiz is available from the Learn server. You will learn how to find lists of people connected by themes e.g. Victoria Cross holders or those buried in Highgate cemetery. Fascinating details are related in “Wealth at death” section of a biography: we find out that the architectural draughtsman, John Preston Neale 1780-1847 left his grandson a cabinet of insects! If you are researching a particular person, e.g. Isambard Kingdom Brunel you can learn how to list his contemporaries. This will enable you to put him in context and  thus learn how British nineteenth century engineers  influenced and interacted with each other.

The core of the ODNB is the 50,000 biographies but did you know that  as well as searching for specific individuals, you can browse  the work as you would the printed edition? ( shelved on Level 3 in the reference section at Dewey no. 920 OXF)

You can also browse by themes which guide you to the biographies of groups of people. Some themes are lists; others discuss a group, event or topic in history. The references search enables you to find the sources used in the preparation of each article and the archival deposits relating to people in the dictionary. The  images search allows you to search for records of known images of people – it is always enlightening to see all the photographs and portraits of an individual at the various stages of their life.


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