eReviews: Biography | April 15, 2012

For many researchers at all levels, investigation starts with an individual‚ the person who made a startling discovery, launched a movement, or reformed a corrupt or ineffective system. The resources covered in this column are for those researchers.

All of these databases‚ the Dictionary of National Biography and the American National Biography from Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press’s Dictionary of Irish Biography, Biography and Genealogy Master Index from Gale Cengage, and Marquis Biographies Online‚ are derived from venerable print reference tools that librarians and scholars working decades ago would recognize instantly. What they wouldn’t recognize are the links to external databases, the ability to move easily from reference list to the library catalog, and a range of other features and capabilities that facilitate the research process.

Dictionary of Irish Biography
Cambridge University Press

CONTENT Published simultaneously in print and online, the award-winning Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB), covering from the earliest times to the year 2002, is an ongoing collaboration between Cambridge University Press and the Royal Irish Academy.

Totaling more than eight million words, the 2009 first edition is referred to by the publisher as the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary available for Ireland. It includes 9,014 signed entries on more than 9700 people from 700 expert advisers and contributors, with entries on artists, scientists, lawyers, actors, musicians, writers, politicians, athletes, criminals, and saints.

Those profiled are prominent individuals who were born in Ireland, had careers there or abroad, and have died. Researchers will find names one would expect to be included in a national biography resource such as well-known politicians, along with more obscure innovators, reformers, and pioneers. Articles range in length from 200 to 15,000 words, providing both short factual summaries and detailed, comprehensive biographies. The print version comprises nine volumes, and online entries provide valuable cross-references to related subjects.

Noteworthy entries cover James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, and Bobby Sands and some figures mainly recognizable to scholars, such as Fearghal √ì Gadhra, Lord of Coolavin; William Hague, architect and civil engineer; and suffragist Margaret Byers, who opened the Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast in 1859. Distinctive features include a Biography of the Day, improved awareness of previously overlooked women, and extensive coverage of contemporary events.

The DIB project continues with bi annual online supplements. These cover individuals who have died since 2002 as well as some who were not featured in the first edition. Seventy-seven biographies were added in 2011, and a sampling of the latest update of December 2011 includes entries on politician and businessman Ruairí Brugha (1917‚ 2006), memoirist and travel writer Robert Harbinson Bryans (1928‚ 2005), and radio announcer Kathleen Dolan (1921‚ 2003).

USABILITY The opening screen is straightforward, with tabs for key navigation options such as Browse by Name or Contributor, Advanced Search, and Read a Random Life. Other features include a key to biographical and bibliographical abbreviations and the introductory pages of the 2009 print edition.

We started with the Random Life option to get an idea of the range of subject matter. All entries offer details of life events‚ birth and death, marriage, family, education, the chronological order of a career (with starting and finishing dates of important positions), the dates of major career accomplishments, and details of significant awards, distinctions, or promotions. Each biography concludes with a detailed source listing.

Quick Search (found on the top of the page) allows name or other keyword searches of the DIB site. Entering connolly in a name search retrieved nine matches, including an entry on Sybil Veronica Connolly (1921‚ 98), a fashion designer with a U.S. following.

A feature worth mentioning is Search from a Search Result. Users can highlight a word, phrase, or name in an article and search for articles mentioning those terms. From Sybil Connolly’s biography, for example, we discovered that 12 other individuals listed in DIB are also buried in Dublin’s Deans Grange cemetery.

Options to refine searches are available throughout the session. After an initial query, users can narrow by gender, birth and death dates, and places and from nearly 50 fields of interest, including crime, eccentrics, and the sea.

Advanced mode retrieved 397 matches for a free-text murder query. Results are displayed alphabetically by personal name, with the search term highlighted and a brief snippet of the full entry. Results can also be sorted by birth or death date or by place. Advanced Search affords quite a bit of precision with options to limit by gender, dates, floruit (date of activity), places, religion, occupation, contributor, and free-text terms.

Users can save search results and/or bookmark article entries to create a My Collections page, and virtual sticky notes can be attached to articles for future reference. They may also print, view materials as PDFs, and email and export the citations and RIS (bibliographic information) of the biography on display. Lastly, users can share articles on social networking sites.

PRICING DIB is available as a one-time purchase with an ongoing annual maintenance fee. Discounted one-time-purchase prices are based on institution size and start at less than $300 for K‚ 12 schools and are less than $800 for others. The ongoing annual maintenance fee, which is charged beginning in the second year of access, is $100 for K‚ 12 schools and $200 for other institutions. Thirty-day free trials are available.

VERDICT This is an essential reference work for the study of Ireland. The database is affordable for all types of libraries and offers just the right complement of bells and whistles. Although the well-known biographies are available from any number of biographical resources, for serious studies of Ireland the breadth of content here is invaluable and will attract scholars, journalists, teachers, and general readers alike.


American National Biography Online
Oxford University Press;

CONTENT Published under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies, Oxford’s authoritative American National Biography Online (ANB) is based on the publisher’s 1999 Dartmouth Medal‚ winning, 24-volume American National Biography. It offers scholarly portraits of more than 18,700 [deceased] men and women‚ from all eras and walks of life‚ whose lives have shaped the nation. More than ten years in preparation, the resource features sophisticated search capabilities, more than 2700 illustrations, in excess of 80,000 hyperlinked cross-references, up-to-date bibliographies, and links to vetted websites. Additionally, more than 900 articles from The Oxford Companion to United States History provide historical and social context.

The database has roughly 50 to 75 new entries added every year, and previously published entries are annually revised to enhance accuracy and currency. The October 2011 update includes 29 individuals, among them politician Jeane Kirkpatrick, poet Arthur Guiterman, and boxer Floyd Patterson.

New entries are primarily recently deceased notables, but roughly ten percent profile historic figures not featured in the print edition. Each entry presents the subject’s biography in the right-hand frame along with a bibliography, internal links to other subjects mentioned in the article, and external links to scholarly web resources. Entries average 1500‚ 2500 words each, although researchers will also discover briefer articles as well as more detailed essays for distinguished subjects.

The left-hand frame identifies the individual’s Occupations and Realms of Renown and displays article subsections, cross-references, and links to any related subjects in the Oxford Companion to United States History. Articles can be printed or emailed in plain text format and a full citation displays at the end of each entry.

The database offers Biography of the Day on the opening screen as well as Research Ideas‚ 12 broad topics that help students jump-start their work by allowing them to browse lists of articles recommended by Oxford editors. Topics such as American Literature, Arts in America, Civil Rights Movement, and The Gilded Age begin with an overview essay and include useful subheadings. For example, World War II includes the categories Politicians and Diplomats, Events, Battles, and Initiatives, Military Leaders, and Recording the War, with essays on Margaret Bourke-White, Pearl S. Buck, Edward Steichen, and others.

A comprehensive Teacher’s Guide is also available; it offers six lessons that showcase the importance of biographical research, such as how to read an essay and use cross-references.

USABILITY Subscribers can enter a Quick Search for name or keyword, Browse, or formulate a more sophisticated query with Search. We started with a browse of the A entries (users can also browse the Oxford Companion) and jumped immediately to the entry on mountain man and wild animal trainer Grizzly Adams. This profile references P.T. Barnum, linking to 11 additional ANB articles as well as ten essays from the Oxford Companion on the antebellum era covering, for example, circuses and vaudeville.

Successful searches produce a brief, alphabetically arranged results list. The subject’s name, dates, and occupation appear along with a word count for the entry and an icon indicating the presence of an illustration, if any. In addition to the list of records, the right-side column displays related articles from The Oxford Companion to United States History.

Advanced mode, found on the left of the screen, is where savvy users can mine the full content of ANB with a word or phrase. The default mode searches articles and bibliographies, but a check box allows users to limit the search to just one of those result types. Researchers may select general areas of occupation and realms of renown via a pull-down menu of general areas (Health & Medicine, Sports & Games) or scan an amazingly detailed listing of occupations. Clicking on an entry from this list returns users to the advanced search mode, inserting the selected term into the search template. We selected Pirates and entered England in the Search Full Text box, retrieving seven entries on, for example, Sir Henry Morgan and William Kidd.

Other advanced options include searching by gender, birth and/or death dates (or ranges of dates), and birthplace using pull-down menus of states or countries. Users can also find the database’s newest entries or those added in a specific year or range by selecting the desired year(s) from a pull-down menu.

ANB also presents Black History, Women’s History, Asian Pacific American Heritage, Hispanic Heritage, and American Indian Heritage collections. These can be selected in the advanced mode as part of the query or used independently.

Help is context-sensitive and reveals an array of features for more precise searching. Subscribers to both ANB and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online will benefit from cross-references linking biographies in the two sites.

PRICING Annual subscription pricing is based on type of institution, FTE or user population, and number of users. Unlimited access is also an option, and Oxford offers multidatabase discounts. A 30-day free trial is available to institutions. Individuals can purchase a personal subscription for $14.95 a month or an annual subscription for $89.

VERDICT With sophisticated search capabilities, scholarly articles, internal cross-references, access to the Oxford Companion for historical context, up-to-date bibliographies, and links to external web resources, ANB represents the benchmark for online scholarly reference tools. It is the go-to biographical reference for scholars, and users at all levels will enjoy the ease of navigation as well as the tailored content. Educators will especially appreciate the handy guides and collections that will help novice students begin the research process.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Oxford University Press;

CONTENT While its About page succinctly sums up what the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) has to offer‚ 58,000 people, 10,800 portraits, 67 million words, 2500 years of history‚ a little more detail helps to bring this resource into clearer perspective.

With entries ranging from sketches of just a few dozen words to detailed scholarly pieces running some 35,000 words in length, the DNB reveals the lives of those who shaped British history from the fourth century B.C.E. through the present. In addition to the biographical details central to each entry, the articles are thoroughly referenced with primary and secondary sources, and archival repositories are identified so that committed scholarly researchers may pursue their studies at the next level.

Based on a 60-volume print edition that was itself a revision of an 1885‚ 1901 original work, the online DNB has been updated three times every year since it was introduced in 2004.

The huge number of portraits incorporated into the resource, thanks to a research partnership with the National Portrait Gallery in London, makes the DNB the most extensive selection of national portraiture ever published.

USABILITY The main DNB search page exhibits Oxford’s customary relaxed elegance. Links to an array of resources for librarians, reading groups, teachers and students, and local and family historians are listed in the left-hand frame, while Life of the Day, the current month’s features, a notice on the current podcast, and links to details of the most recent update grace the right-hand frame.

Users may key in a name and begin searching, browse listings of people or contributors, or explore the current month’s featured themes. The query anne gunter returned an 800-word article, written by James Sharpe, on the demoniac whose condition captured the fascination of James VI in 1604. Clicking on the Resource link in the left-hand frame produced a pop-up window including citations to the author’s full-length book on Gunter and several archival sources. What makes this more than just an online version of a reference book entry is that clicking on the Find icon for the secondary sources triggers a catalog search that will enable researchers to get projects underway in earnest. The resources pop-up also indicates whether a likeness of the subject is available and relates his or her Wealth at Death.

Residing, too, in the left-hand frame is a link to other Oxford online resources; in our library, it’s Bibliography of British and Irish History. The DNB Archive link leads to the entry, if any, for the subject that was published in the Victorian-era edition of the DNB. Obviously, a simple dictionary search in this resource packs a lot of research potential.

For a Union College first-year scholars’ seminar, in which students began research projects by identifying less-well-known British explorers, the database’s Date, Place, Occupation search option proved invaluable.

We constructed a fairly involved search strategy using the hierarchical Fields of Interest index, along with a date range of 1500 to 1800, to match the parameters of the course. Using a radio button, we could require that any subject be active during that period (rather than simply alive), and using the place search box, we entered the names of countries the students were interested in researching.

Users have the option of mining the full text or looking for people, referenced works, contributors, or images using various indexes. It’s also possible to highlight any section of text and click on the Go button to initiate a search. And as a welcome bonus, subscribers to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary may jump from OED quotations to related DNB biographies.

PRICING Personal subscriptions are priced at $29.95 per month and $295 for a full year. Institutional pricing varies, depending on whether the library chooses unlimited or simultaneous use.

Effective July 1, 2012, a single-user institutional license will start at $1650. Oxford offers pricing for up to ten simultaneous users, at which point the unlimited- use subscription becomes the more logical option.

Unlimited-use subscriptions start at $1995 and are based on size and type of institution. Academic pricing is determined by FTE, while subscription costs for government, corporate, and not-for-profit organizations depend on the number of employees. Public library pricing is set according to population served.

Institutions purchasing the print edition of the DNB will get a complimentary one-year subscription to the online edition. Free 30-day trials are available to all prospective institutional subscribers.

VERDICT If this were just a biographical dictionary it would be a pretty impressive one, as its content is well researched, authoritative, and readable. The links from an entry to a library’s catalog turn this into a sophisticated tool that dramatically facilitates the research process. Add in the links to external resources such as Bibliography of British and Irish History, and the result‚ for librarians who have been urging students to use a resource such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the references associated with each article as the launching pad for research projectsis a resource that approaches ideal for reference and instruction.


Biography and Genealogy Master Index
Gale Cengage Learning;

CONTENT With 17 million citations on nearly five million people, the scale of Gale Cengage Learning’s Biography and Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) is staggering. The database refers users to biographical material residing in more than 2000 publications ranging from such standards as Biography Index, Who’s Who in America, and The New York Times Biographical Service to extensive complementary specialized resources including Golombek’s Encyclopedia of Chess, The Dictionary of Sea Painters, The Encyclopedia of Surfing, and 13 Mistresses of Murder.

Scanning the BGMI listing of sources indexed using our browser’s Find command, we discovered multiple titles on virtually every subject, geographic area, and nationality. There were 11 titles devoted to opera and the same number covering philosophers, eight on fashion, three on radicals, and two on witchcraft. BGMI also includes ten biographical titles on sports in general plus five on baseball and two each on football and basketball. There are eight sources on the Caribbean, eight on China, nine on Canada, and two on Michigan. Africa and African Americans come up more than 60 times in the source list, and there are in excess of 100 titles discussing women.

BGMI’s publication history extends over the course of three decades, and its full contents‚ both print and electronic‚ are included in the online version. It is updated twice per year with a staggering 300,000 new citations per reload.

USABILITY Basic search mode doubles as BGMI’s homepage. It is straightforward and functional, if not particularly appealing. Taking a keyword approach to searching, users may type a name into the single search box using any combination, in any order, of first, middle, and/or last name. A simple Name Contains search for Donald Trump reveals one of BGMI’s weaknesses‚ the absence of authority control. The eight items in the results list include three different birth dates (as well as an entry with no birth date) plus entries with middle name, middle initial, and no middle name or initial.

The alternative Start of Last Name search option invites researchers to Enter as much as you know of the last name only, an approach that offers at least a chance of finding the 160-plus citations for tennis legend Martina Navratilova, for example.

BGMI also offers Advanced and Expert Search modes. Advanced search permits field searching by first, middle, last, or complete name, Prefix/Suffix/Functional Title, birth and death year ranges, source title, and free text. Users may also use a check box to find citations that include the subject’s portrait.

Search capabilities include the use of Boolean operators; searches using proximity, nesting, truncation, wildcards, and quotation marks; and (in expert mode only) numeric range searching.

Advanced search uncovered about 40 entries for Spartacus as a Complete Name query; however, with no authority list or content notes other than the titles of the Sources Indexed listing, we had no success doing a free-text search on slave before 476 C.E. The absence of an occupation, region of interest, or area of renown field is a major shortcoming in a biographical resource.

Searches for John Lydon and his more recognizable pseudonym, Johnny Rotten, produced differing results. The database’s records from Biography Index, Contemporary Authors, Who’s Who in Rock Music, and Who’s Who in Hollywood all identified both names as the same person; but Legends in Their Own Time, Dictionary of Pseudonyms, and The History Today Who’s Who in British History showed up only on the Johnny Rotten search; while Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, The Great Rock Discography, and The New York Times Biographical Service aligned themselves with John Lydon.

Marking multiple items in the results list does not combine them into a single group when the list is viewed, so printing or emailing citations may take several tries if there are variations on how a name is cited.

PRICING Annual subscriptions for academic libraries start at approximately $1,295 and are based on FTE; for public libraries they start at approximately $495 and are based on population size.

VERDICT BGMI is a throwback to another era. Most people will Google a name or search for it on Wikipedia before they’ll consult an index that lacks direct or even linked full text. Even more sophisticated researchers who appreciate that BGMI mines some 2000 sources over the course of the last three decades will be frustrated that so many of those print sources are not readily available. As a full-text alternative, Gale offers the Biography in Context data base, which includes 600,000-plus biographies on more than 525,000 individuals.


Marquis Biographies Online (Who’s Who)
Marquis Who’s Who, LLC;

CONTENT Updated daily, Marquis Biographies Online (MBO features comprehensive profiles of more than 1.4 million of the “most accomplished” individuals from all fields, including government, business, science and technology, the arts, entertainment, and sports. Recognized globally since 1899 as the premier biographical data provider, MBO supports complex searches, combining fields like name, gender, occupation, hobbies and interests, religion, political affiliation, degrees, and more.

A subscription to MBO provides access to current biographies of all individuals who appeared in any of the 24 Marquis Who’s Who print titles since 1985, which cover the United States as a whole and its various regions; the world; Asia; women; American history, law, politics, art, and corporations; and various fields of endeavor worldwide.

In addition, MBO has digitized biographies from the archive of Who Was Who in America (1607‚ 1985) in an online segment called Who’s Who in American History, which represents 400 years of biography with life stories of inventors, explorers, colonists, abolitionists, and others who influenced the country from its early years.

Libraries can subscribe to slices or segments of the full online database. These provide immediate access to all biographies that have appeared in each print title since 1985: the Who’s Who in America slice offers 447,671 biographies; Who’s Who in the World, 389,686; Who’s Who in American Politics, 23,623; Who’s Who in American Art, 16,508; and the above-mentioned Who’s Who in American History provides 158,688 biographies from the archive.

Each biographical entry includes information as appropriate on the person’s birth, family, education and degree, career history, creative works, awards, military history, achievements, current memberships, interests/hobbies, and contact information.

MBO also offers an on-demand service, which allows researchers to purchase individual biographies without a subscription or to access the database for one week or month at a time.

Criteria for inclusion follows the standards initially developed with the first volume of Who’s Who in America in 1899 and refined over the years. The listing standards cover a broad spectrum of professions, with more than 800 occupational designations supported in Marquis directories, including lumberman, professional sailor, cattle rancher, and missionary.

USABILITY MBO is representative of the print publications that bear its name, and access to the online file permits users to search across all content or limit to the individual segments. There are few wow features here, but the basic facts are often just what users need. Quick and Advanced searches are available, and an Advanced Search Navigator‚ omnipresent on the left column‚ allows quick access to the various segments throughout the session.

We began with a Quick Search for obama in the keyword field, locating 369 entries. Quick search has first and last name and keyword options, and bio graphies are displayed with first and last names, date of birth, occupation, and city, state, and country of residence.

Selecting a record retrieves biographical information and the title and edition of its print source. After reviewing several names, we modified our initial search to seek those individuals who were part of the Obama-Biden presidential transition team, narrowing the results from our initial query to 13. A sampling of entries included Robert Adler, Reta Jo Lewis, Eric Braverman, and Patrick Gaspard, whose latest career listing is executive director, Democratic National Committee, 2011 to present.

Each segment has subject-specific field searching, with the complete file offering the most options, such as Hobbies & Special Interests, 13 Political Affiliations, and 24 Religion choices.

It was amusing to see what combinations of searches we could try to retrieve an interesting group‚ e.g., the five medical professionals with butterfly-collecting hobbies or the 30 lawyers who listed driving as their special interest.

With a straightforward interface, the system provides a search history feature. Print is the only output option.

PRICING Based on 2200 FTE at Union College, the list price for unlimited access is $2,495. Factors include size and level of access. Marquis is currently offering a 20 percent discount for new subscribers for the first year only. Thirty-day free trials are available.

VERDICT Currency is a plus (listees have the opportunity to update their biographies several times throughout the year), and MBO is appropriate for all library types, with its broad range of content from the 1600s to the present. Offering no-frills brief biographical information in directory format, MBO remains the standard for credible, evaluated information.



African American Biographical Database
African American Biographical Database (AABD) brings together biographies, rare books, and historical information on thousands of African American national activists, state and local figures, prominent women, musicians, artists and writers, church and missionary leaders, former slaves, and others, many of whom are not found in any other reference source. Coverage, which extends from 1790 through 1950, includes information from Chadwyck-Healey’s Black Biographical Dictionaries 1790‚ 1950 and Black Biography, 1790‚ 1950: A Cumulative Index. Biographical portraits from dictionaries as well as from other published reference sources, obituary files, slave narrative collections, and Internet sites are added bimonthly.

The material is searchable by subject name, birth place, occupation, religion, date of birth or death, gender, and by the source of the information. AABD also offers access to thousands of photographs and illustrations as well as full-text searching for nearly 300 rare titles that were used as sources to compile the biographies.

Biography Source
EBSCO Publishing
Developed from the H.W. Wilson merger and forthcoming in the fall of 2012, this data base will provide access to a broad collection of more than 600,000 in-depth biographies and obituaries, including thousands of unique narrative biographies previously not available in any other resource. It will include the complete text of the entire run of Biography Today and Biography and will provide unmatched coverage of Current Biography.

Other content will include 9000 entries from American National Biography (Oxford Univ.), Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, and Notable American Women (Harvard Univ.), profiles of United States presidents, Salem Press biographies, thousands of images, People in the News collections, and much more. Institutional trials will be available soon.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete
Gale Cengage Learning;
The Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) Complete provides comprehensive biographical and critical essays written by recognized scholars on the lives, works, and careers of the world’s most influential literary figures from all eras and genres.

This database offers complete online access to all volumes of Gale’s reference set: Dictionary of Literary Biography, the main series (346 volumes), as well as Dictionary of Literary Biography: Documentary Series (more than 50 volumes) and Dictionary of Literary Biography: Yearbook Series (23 volumes).

With 16,000-plus articles, DLB includes profiles of more than 143,000 past and present authors, historians, journalists, screenwriters, publishers, and playwrights‚ a total of more than 420 volumes and 164,000 pages, easily searched and retrieved. Institutions can opt in for a one-time purchase of past volumes‚ every article from all 346 volumes published through the end of 2008‚ as well as add a standing order for all new Dictionary of Literary Biography releases added to the online collection as they are published.

The interface offers basic search by keyword, full text, or named author, browsing by volume or author, and the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive search with advanced mode. Users can view a retrieved document’s table of contents and list of illustrations by selecting Inside this Entry.

LexisNexis Academic
Reed Elsevier;
LexisNexis Academic offers a Research People widget for gathering information on public figures. Users must enter at least a last name in the input boxes provided. A source drop-down option allows users to limit to a comprehensive listing of Biographical References, including Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, Biographies of Peers, Who’s Who in American Art, and Who’s Who in European Politics, or hundreds of sources within Recent News Stories. Additional biographical searches can be conducted within a People or Browse Sources search.

World Biography Information System Online (WBIS)
De Gruyter;

Claiming to offer the most comprehensive biographical database available, de Gruyter here provides short snippets of information on more than six million people from the eighth century B.C.E. to the present.

Included are 8.5 million digital facsimile articles from various biographical reference works series, including 57 Biographical Archives published by K.G. Saur Verlag, an imprint of Walter de Gruyter, each covering a country, language, or cultural area and previously available only in paper and microfiche editions.

The facsimile reproductions are arranged alphabetically by name, and entries include men and women from all centuries, areas of society, and professions‚ from science to politics and from the arts to business. Biographical data and facts include name, gender, years of birth and death or year cited, occupation and occupational classification, the short title of the original source, and the location of microfiche in the Biographical Archive.

About Bruce Connolly & Gail Golderman

Gail Golderman ( is Electronic Resources Librarian and Bruce Connolly ( is Reference & Bibliographic Instruction Librarian, Schaffer Library, Union College, Schenectady, NY


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