The Lives of Others

It’s been 10 years since the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was born. For some of the geekier members of the reference staff, it’s really quite hard to imagine life without it.

The Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyYes, there was its predecessor, the plain old Dictionary of National Biography, but that was only available as an actual book (well, quite a lot of books), you had to walk across the room to look at them and frankly, the print was quite small.

Not so with the new improved Oxford Dictionary. There is a print copy – you can read it at Westminster Reference Library or Marylebone Information Service, and very splendid it is too, in 60 handsome volumes. But you can also read the entire work – all 59,221 biographies – in the comfort of your own home by visiting our Online Resources page and logging on with your Westminster Libraries card number.

The ODNB is a work in progress and will continue to be so until people stop having distinguished lives. Since 2004, 4300 new lives have been added – each year they add notable people who died three years before and also some earlier biographies. They also add fascinating essays on all manner of subjects such as The Great Fire of London (a chance to do a little research before ITV’s new drama on the subject is broadcast) and The Synthetic Society (frankly I have no idea what this is, but it sounds fun). Or indeed, for National Poetry Day you might like to find out about the Cavalier Poets, the Rhymers’ Club or the Spasmodic School of Poetry

You can search biographies by name but also browse by birth or death order – the earliest biography is Piltdown Man if you count hoaxes, and the Red Lady of Haviland (‘not a historical character but an incomplete prehistoric human skeleton’) if you’re looking for a real person. Piltdown Man isn’t the only person who has the distinction of appearing in the ODNB without actually existing – check out the entries for Merlin and Friar Tuck.

There are myriad other ways to search too, offering ways into biographies that would likely remain hidden in the hard copy – see our previous post on the subject. Whoever you choose to read about, the articles are well-written, interesting and well-researched. You can even download podcasts so you can learn on the go. Happy Anniversary, ODNB.



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