Monday, June 14, 2010

General comments on biographical sources

  1. Apt to reflect opinion of era in which published.
  2. International biographical dictionaries tend to give more emphasis to nationals of country in which published.
  3. Encyclopedias useful for those who are dead, less so for the living.
  4. Encyclopedias and national biographical dictionaries are apt to include evaluation as well as narration of accomplishments.
  5. National biographical dictionaries cover more names in more detail than international dictionaries.
  6. Local histories with long biographical sections are a good source of information about less prominent persons.
  7. Newspaper and periodical indexes give good references for obituaries, outstanding, accomplishments, contemporary opinion, and eye witness accounts.
  8. Special biographical dictionaries of writers and artists usually give more biocritical information and more biographic citations than general sources.
  9. Special biographical dictionaries of scientists usually give more specific information than a general source.
  10. Literary histories and handbooks are a good source of biographies of poets, dramatists and novelists.
Biographical search tips
  • If nationality not known, consult an encyclopedia or international biographical dictionary first.
  • If nationality is known, consult a national biographical dictionary first.
  • If person no longer alive, consult a retrospective source first.
  • If person living, consult a current source first.
  • If person’s profession is known, consult biographical sources for that profession first.

Selected reference sources
Current biographical dictionaries

Canadian Who’s Who. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. FC 25 .C35
Annual. The largest and most authoritative Who’s Who published in Canada, featuring over fifteen thousand biographical sketches. Selection on merit alone. Exact addresses for important business and social correspondence. Precise information concerning degrees, honors, names of immediate family, business and/or professional history. Available in print and CD-ROM editions. 1997 version available at no cost on the Web at

Who’s Who in Canada. Toronto: Global Press. FC 25 .W6
This annual publication has some overlap with Canadian Who’s Who, but covers mainly financial and government figures. Contains over 2,000 brief sketches, and includes portraits.
Who’s Who in America. Chicago: Marquis. E 176 .W642
Annual. This standard dictionary of contemporary biography is primarily American but includes persons from Canada and Mexico. Covers more than 80,000 individuals. For versions see Marquis website
Who’s Who. London: A & C Black. (American edition published by St. Martin’s)
A British publication containing brief sketches for over 30,000 prominent British and international figures.
Current Biographical Dictionaries
Current Biography. New York: H.W. Wilson CT 100 .C8
11 monthly issues with annual cumulation in Current Biography Yearbook. Has longer biographies (2,500 words/2-3 pages). Each year covers about 200 individuals, as well as obituary notices for about 150 individuals who died during the year. International in scope, but heavily American. Includes portraits and biographies.
Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale. Z 1224 .C612
Contains essays of at least one page in length on over 100,000 current authors (including movie and television writers, journalists, critics, musicians, as well as individuals prominent in other fields). Contains lists of writings and bibliographies. Published in several series, including the Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, which includes updated essays on writers in the first series. In print, CD-ROM, and on the Web by subscription.
Literary Index is an online index to the entire combined series. It enables you to find which Gale literature series include entries on an author. You can search for the title of a literary work to see who wrote it and/or where it’s discussed in Gale’s literature criticism series, and look for authors in the Index by name, birth date, death date, or nationality.
Current/Retrospective Biographical Dictionaries – UniversalCambridge Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1995.
Provides the essential details on more than 14,000 people from the past and present. Includes both those living and those now dead. A condensed version of the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia/
Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.
An authoritative, single-volume reference work on people, both living and dead. In addition to its thousand or more pages of A-Z entries with c. 15,000 short biographies, the book offers a Ready Reference section with lists of c. 10,000 additional political leaders and rulers, Nobel Prize winners, patron saints, sports champions, etc.
Retrospective biographical dictionaries – universal
Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster.
Contains about 30,000 entries and does not include living people. Includes a pronunciation guide to the names.
New Century Cyclopedia of Names.
Entries for places, events, literary works, and fictitious and mythological characters, as well as for important people of the past.
Retrospective biographical dictionaries – national
Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This is the major British national biographical dictionary and the largest of the national biographical dictionaries. Covers Great Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth from earliest times up to 1990. Includes over 36,000 individuals. Essays are about one page in length or more and include bibliographies. New version under title Oxford Dictionary of National Biography slated for publication in 2004.
Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Toronto: U of Toronto Press.
Canada’s national biography. The 1st phase, volumes I-XII, covers major and minor noteworthy Canadians who died between the years 1000 and 1900. Contains essays of up to 10,000 words for each individual. Includes bibliographies. Volumes XIII (1901-1910) and XIV (1911-1921) have been published and further volumes are in the planning stages.
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Free source covering persons who died between the years 1000 and 1920 or whose last known date of activity falls within these years. The biographies are fully searchable by keyword and volumes 2, 4-8, and 11-14 are accessible by identity/profession and volumes 2, 5-8, and 11-14 are accessible by geographic region. Each biography in the Online version reproduces one that was originally commissioned by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography for its print version and was republished, sometimes with minor corrections, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volumes I-XIV, CD-ROM (2000).
American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Covers to 1995 in print version. Online version also available. The most authoritative source on deceased Americans, covering almost 17,500 individuals from virtually all walks of life. It is the first new comprehensive biographical dictionary focused on American history. Most essays are at least one page in length, and they include bibliographies. Online updates to original print volumes available without charge at ANB web site RRC Library has concise version of older Dictionary of American Biography (DAB; Concise Dictionary of American Biography E 176 .C564).
Who Was Who CT 100 .W43
Quinquennial. Essentially the Who’s Who entry with the death date added.
Who Was Who in America. Chicago: Marquis.
Approximately every three years, sketches of Marquis Who’s Who biographees who have died since publication of the prior volume of Who Was Who in America are incorporated into a new compilation.
New York Times Obituaries Index
Canadian Periodical Index
Biographical IndexesBiography and Genealogy Master Index. Gale.
Individuals both living and deceased, from every field of activity and from all areas of the world. Retrospective and current biographical listings with emphasis on currently living Americans, although many deceased and non-U.S. individuals are also included.
Over 11 million biographical sketches which have been published in a variety of “who’s who” type sources: biographical dictionaries, subject encyclopedias, volumes of literary criticism and more. Contrary to its name does not cover genealogy well since passenger lists and similar sources are not indexed. Available in print, fiche, online and CD-ROM.
Biography Index. H.W. Wilson (available of OCLC FirstSearch)
Cites biographical material appearing in more than 3,000 periodicals indexed in other H.W. Wilson databases and additional selected periodicals, some 2,500 current books (annually) of individual and collective biography, and incidental biographical material in otherwise non-biographical books. Periodicals indexed are selected from all subject areas represented by other H.W. Wilson databases. Available in print, CD- ROM and on the Web.
Biography Reference Bank. H. W. Wilson.
A compilation of two Wilson databases – Biography Index Plus and Wilson Biographies Plus Illustrated. Biography Index Plus consists of citations to approximately 2,500 books of individual and collective biography and citations from the 3,000 journals indexed in the Wilson databases. More than 1,450 journals include full-text context. Includes all volumes from Current Biography. BRB also has material licensed from ABC-CLIO, Fitzroy Dearborn, and others. Coverage is international and includes both the living and the dead for a combined total of more than 195,000 individuals and growing.
Biography Resource Center. Gale.
Online subscription product from Gale. Has biographical sketches and photos of thousands of people from hundreds of authoritative sources. It contains information on celebrities and experts in all fields and from all ages both living and dead. For online tour go to
Internet Sites
“Internet Resources: Biography resources: Finding information on the famous, infamous, and obscure” College & Research Libraries News. January 2002.
Lives the Biography Resource.
The largest guide to biography sites on the Web. Has a section on Canada, “Lives: Special Collections: Canadian”.
Michigan Electronic Library Biography Links.
An extensive and regularly updated listing of biographical sources on the Web, produced by the Library of Michigan and the University of Michigan.
Biographical Dictionary.
“This dictionary covers more than 28,000 notable men and women who have shaped our world from ancient times to the present day. The dictionary can be searched by birth years, death years, positions held, professions, literary and artistic works, achievements, and other keywords.”
Allows you to search through over 20,000 paragraph-length biographies of notable personalities from antiquity to the present. Developed by A&E Television Networks from the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia.
See also
Biography section from Ontario Library Service. Ready Reference Sources.
Library and Archives Canada. Canadian Information by Subject biography section.

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